When it comes to the topic of irradiation, what's interesting about the approach of national trade groups such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), the American Meat Institute (AMI) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) is that they're all pretty much content to sit on the curb in support of the parade marching past them. While it's true all have member policy on record in support of food irradiation technology, none of them puts any serious effort in terms of dollars or staff time toward educating consumers about this life-saving technology.

In fact, these groups' approach pretty well mimics the stonewalling of the U.S. dairy industry regarding milk pasteurization in the first half of the 20th century. At that time, diphtheria, typhoid, tuberculosis and scarlet fever outbreaks were attributed to the consumption of raw milk.

Noted molecular biologist Morton Satin writes in his book, “Food Irradiation: A Guidebook,” that as raw milk became more associated with the transmission of disease, public health officials and the medical community became more direct in condemning the dairy industry and dairy products. The response of some dairies was to work with their state medical associations in devising better work procedures, and improving cleanliness of animals, barns, milking equipment and workers, all of which were then subject to rigid inspection.

Milk produced under the specified conditions was endorsed by the various state medical milk commissions and called “certified” milk. It was considered to be the purest and safest raw milk possible. The problem was there was no kill step for bacteria in raw milk and it quickly became evident that certification was no guarantee against milk-borne infections.

Of course, the dairy industry looked at a number of remedies to avoid pasteurization. These included chemical treatments of milk with hydrogen peroxide, salicylic acid and benzoic acids, and potassium dichromate. Substances employed commercially were borax, boracic acid and formaldehyde.

Though overwhelming scientific evidence clearly demonstrated the benefits of pasteurization in extending shelf life and preventing food-borne disease, Satin says the dairy industry claimed such treatment:

  • interfered with nature's perfect food,

  • would increase infant mortality,

  • would promote carelessness and remove the incentive for producers to deliver clean product,

  • would significantly lower milk's nutritive value and impair the flavor,

  • would destroy raw milk's beneficial enzymes, antibodies and hormones and take the “life” out of milk,

  • would increase consumer milk prices,

  • didn't have enough consumer demand,

  • and would break smaller dealers.

Do any of those excuses sound familiar?

An NPD Group survey released in early June found E. coli to be the second biggest food safety concern among U.S. consumers (75%), after salmonella (76%). Irradiation can virtually eliminate this concern, but none of the three trade groups are seriously working toward building widespread consumer acceptance of the process.

On pages 6 and 8 of this issue, are letters from the producer leadership and staff of the American National CattleWomen and the Cattlemen's Beef Board. The letters are in regard to editorials I've published in the past month promoting irradiation and criticizing the lack of trade-group activity in public education.

The letter writers are correct in that I didn't clearly differentiate between NCBA (which is a contractor of the CBB) and the CBB (which actually administers the checkoff and ultimately decides which projects are supported with checkoff dollars). I apologize for the oversight and the confusion it caused.

And, as one letter very correctly emphasizes, NCBA has no say about which projects the producers charged with allocating checkoff dollars choose to invest in. However, one has to be naïve to believe staff doesn't exert influence in prioritizing industry issues and helping define the industry's response and research needs. That's their job.

Irradiation isn't a silver bullet. But why leave your best player on the bench during the biggest game of the season in order to develop your new talent?

I believe most U.S. beef producers feel the industry should utilize the proven technology that's already available — while continuing to work on new methods — to make an immediate impact on ground beef's E. coli 0157:H7 problem. If you agree, you should make your advocacy known.