Both sides chime in on carcass irradiation issues

(, October 03, 2008)
by Bernard Shire

Source of Article:

WASHINGTON – In an effort to cut back the incidence of bacteria and pathogens in ground beef, the American Meat Institute presented a petition that would allow the use of low-level irradiation on the surface of beef carcasses as a processing aid to kill E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture held a Sept. 18 public meeting on the petition that would allow meat processors to use irradiation as a processing aid, which drew a lot of support and opposition. Supporters said it would make beef safer for consumers to eat. But opponents said a single study of the issue, funded by industry dollars, does not prove irradiation used as a processing aid on beef would be safe for consumers – or that it would make the beef safer for consumption.

Participants at the USDA hearing discussed a petition submitted by the American Meat Institute to USDA three years ago. AMI Foundation President Randy Huffman, Ph.D., told attendees at the September meeting that low-dose electron beam carcass irradiation can be an important processing aid to enhance beef safety without becoming an ingredient or additive to the final product.

However, Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P), a group that fights foodborne illness, told MEAT&POULTRY the group believes technology can help improve food safety, but has questions about irradiation. "We’re not really pro or anti-irradiation, she said. "But we have some concerns. First, the single supporting study AMI is using to support its petition was funded by beef checkoff dollars. In our view, because of that, the study might not be impartial."

Huffman said study data shows irradiation could be effective in destroying bacteria on the carcass surface. He pointed out irradiation would be used as a processing aid, but would not be present in the finished product in significant levels. Furthermore, irradiation does not have any technical or functional effect on the food, he added. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service never required the labeling of an ingredient used as an antimicrobial when it is treating meat. FDA also does not require including processing aids on product labels.

The use of irradiation of meat, poultry and other foods was approved by the Food and Drug Administration a long time ago, and FSIS then approved treating uncooked meat and poultry products to reduce levels of foodborne pathogens, as well as extending shelf-life. FSIS went along with irradiation treatment of meat and poultry, but has required packages to carry the radura symbol of irradiation on labels. But due to consumer opposition and fear by the public of "radiation," only a limited amount of food has been irradiated, and the tool has been used on a limited basis as a weapon for food safety.

With the increasing emergency of E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens, industry began looking at irradiation again, but this time as a processing aid, so it could avoid putting the radura logo on packages, and having to label products as "treated with radiation."

"It would be misleading to mandate the labeling of the process or any beef derived from the carcass since those products would evidence no characteristics of irradiated product," Huffman said at the meeting. He pointed out the difference between carcass irradiation, compared to other approved methods, is that it utilizes a lower dose and results in an insignificant portion of the carcass receiving an electron beam exposure, with most of the edible part of the carcass receiving no e-beam exposure at all.

S.T.O.P.’s Donley took issue with other parts of AMI’s petition and the irradiation plan. She noted that live E. coli O157:H7 was not used during the justifying study at all, that the toxin was removed, raising questions about the validity of the study. And she noted that the study gave no indication of how effective the low-dose irradiation would be against pathogens. "There is no indication that the irradiation would be used to address a hazard at a critical control point in food safety," she said.

Written comments on this issue must be received by October 18, and can be sent through the federal eRulemaking Portal, at



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