After languishing for three years awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), irradiation of beef could -- finally -- become a reality as early as this month.

Food irradiation is a preservative process that uses low levels of ionizing energy to destroy the microorganisms responsible for foodborne illness and extend the shelf life of perishable foods. Though it's little used, it has FDA approval for use on poultry, pork and other foods, but not beef. A petition before FDA to allow the irradiation of beef has hung up for three years, mostly due to consumer concerns over safety.

But, the process is a safe and effective method that's endorsed by health authorities in 40 countries as well as numerous health groups, including the American Medical and American Dietetic associations.

FDA approval of irradiation for beef would provide the industry with its first and only method to date that would give consumers total assurance their red meat is safe at the point of purchase, says Dennis Olson. He's director of Iowa State University's (ISU) Utilization Center for Agricultural Products. ISU houses the nation's only commercial-size research irradiation facility.

"At the minimum dose that would be approved, the equivalent of about one million E.coli cells would be killed. With the tests that have been done, the most cells that have ever been found in ground beef is less than 100," says Olson. "The low dose of irradiation would kill 99.99 percent of the pathogens in red meat."

Touted as technology whose "time has come," irradiated beef could soon be more popular and readily available than one might think.

A Matter Of Time Olson tells BEEF, "There's no question that irradiation for red meat will be approved. It's more a question of when." FDA has been considering a petition for irradiation of all red meat since 1994. He speculates that approval could come before the end of 1997.

While the FDA-regulated food preservation method is currently approved for U.S. fruits, vegetables, spices, grains, poultry and pork, the presence of irradiation in the food industry has been subtle.

"The approval of irradiation for red meat will have an effect in creating consumer demand for irradiated products," says Tim Willard, spokesperson for the National Food Processors Association.

"In the past, there weren't strong safety concerns attached to the approval of irradiated products," Willard says. Irradiation was approved to control trichina in pork in 1986 and to curb salmonella in poultry in 1990, but it has been little used. "The recent spotlight on hamburger could create a demand for it," Willard adds.

"The poultry industry hasn't utilized irradiation because their product isn't served medium rare," explains Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis). "However, that isn't an informed decision because foodborne pathogens still exist in poultry."

Pete Ellis, president and CEO of Food Technology Services in Mulberry, FL, blames irradiation's sluggish appeal on lack of support from the producer level. "We haven't had enough livestock producers or retail chains line up and say: 'We are going to produce a line of irradiated products.' " Food Technology Services is the only commercial irradiation center dedicated entirely to food.

Increasing Appeal There's a widespread misconception that U.S. consumers will not accept irradiated food because of the process's link to nuclear energy. Willard says, "Irradiation's single biggest problem has always been the name."

But attitude studies and market tests show that consumers are accepting the technology. Research conducted at UC-Davis indicates 60-80% of consumers are willing to buy irradiated food products, according to Bruhn.

"In order to create a favorable market reaction to irradiation of beef it's not just approval of the process," says Willard. "Education has to be involved."

"For the most part consumers don't understand what irradiation is, they don't know the benefits it offers to food, or they think it leaves food radioactive," says Bruhn.

"Once people are educated about food irradiation, their interest in buying increases to 80 to 90 percent," Bruhn says. Support for irradiated products increases even more when people are aware that it's endorsed by respected health organizations worldwide.

"Consumers informed about food irradiation are asking, 'Why can't I buy this now?' " says Bruhn.

"Frankly, every test market that's been done with irradiated product, including a few retail stores, have sold irradiated product with success," says ISU's Olson.

Some even speculate that labeling foods "irradiated" would lead to consumers paying significantly more for those products because they know they are safe. An ISU study of boneless chicken breast in retail stores concluded that irradiated and non-irradiated products, when priced the same, each had about half of the market share. When the irradiated product was priced 20% higher, it still had 18% market share.

"It appears that it won't need to be priced lower to move the product," Olson points out.

Once upfront costs of building a facility and putting in a source are accounted for, Olson estimates irradiating large volumes of red meat would cost 1-2 cents /lb.

Food Technology Services currently charges "a few cents per pound" for spices, fruits, vegetables or poultry, depending on dose, density and volume of product.

More Than A Niche? Olson contends it's unlikely all meat and poultry products would ever be treated with ionizing radiation. "But, for that segment that wants guaranteed safe food, it will fit the niche," he says.

"We probably aren't going to see a flood of companies irradiating their product overnight simply because the facilities don't exist," says Willard.

Ellis and Bruhn see a future where most meat products are irradiated. "Isn't all milk pasteurized?" Ellis asks.

"It's still going to be a choice. But offering a product that is 99.99 percent safe can send a message that the product before it wasn't safe. I would hope that very soon the industry would all be buying irradiated meat products," Bruhn says. "And, products that aren't irradiated are carrying warning labels," she adds.

"This is not the be-all, end-all of food safety. It's one more tool in the toolbox to assure food safety," Willard cautions.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, would like to see irradiation used only as a "last resort," according to spokesperson Michael Jacobson.

CSPI would like to see more practical applications, such as cleansing beef carcasses with steam, put into place first, Jacobson says.

Other Benefits In addition to making food safer, irradiation can add value to food by increasing its shelf life and eliminating much of the waste caused by spoilage. Currently, refrigerated ground beef's product life is about 12 days. Irradiation would double that life, Olson says.

Irradiation also would enable consumers to eat ground beef cooked to a lesser degree if they desire. Now, some consumers feel they have to cook beef until it's well done to ensure its safety and it ends up dry and chewy. "If you like medium-rare ground beef, irradiation would allow you to have it," Olson says.

With the recent Hudson Foods recall, Olson believes many companies will soon be offering a line of irradiated products. "Because it occurs so seldom, there isn't an efficient or affordable sampling process to test for E.coli," Olson says. "USDA has pulled 16,500 ground beef samples since 1994 from packing plants, restaurants and retail stores and tested for E.coli. They've found it positive in nine. So any company can test for it, but there's no confidence in that (the test)," Olson says.

"Cooking and irradiation are perhaps the only existing ways today to get rid of microorganisms on food. And when you're in the business of selling a raw product, you can't cook it," says Olson.

Irradiation would likely occur after packaging and labeling. "It doesn't have to occur then, but that's the best time, so the product isn't handled again after the bacteria have been killed. As long as the package stays intact, there won't be any recontamination," says Dennis Olson, director of the Utilization Center for Agricultural Products at Iowa State University.

How the irradiation process works: * The packaged product is loaded onto a conveyor and moved into an enclosed chamber -- an irradiator -- where it will be exposed to a carefully measured amount of intense ionizing energy.

* Once the product enters the concrete room, gamma energy from racks containing cobalt 60 or electrons from an accelerator penetrate the food, with the energy being absorbed by the food. There is little effect on the food itself because only the rapidly growing cells of insects and pathogenic bacteria are killed.

* The process only increases the temperature of the product 2-3 degrees F. so it's very comparable to cold pasteurization, according to Olson. Since the temperature change during irradiation is minimal, nutrient losses are small, as are changes in taste, texture or appearance. Research by USDA indicates that microwaving and cooking cause greater vitamin loss in meat than does irradiation.

* The irradiation process takes about 25 seconds. While the product is being irradiated, it's never in contact with radioactive material. Therefore, it can't become radioactive.

* The product moves out of the room on the conveyor. It can be handled immediately by workers.

Food irradiators could be implemented at the packing plant or a service facility to destroy any organisms before the product reaches the consumer, says Olson.

"If beef becomes recontaminated at home or at the restaurant when it's taken out of that package, the contaminants would only be on the surface and that will always be cooked well enough to destroy any microorganisms," Olson says.

"With beef, the critical control point is still with the final user, whether that's the restaurant chef or the consumer at home," says Olson. "Irradiated beef must still be properly refrigerated and cooked."