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FDA’s Irradiation Ruling
Puts FDA On The Spot

At Wegmans, consumers can buy irradiated hamburger meat. As we discussed both here and here, we think that is great. But we are also mindful that only a minority of customers elect to do so.

Why is this?

Wegmans’ Senior Vice President
of Consumer Affairs,
Mary Ellen Burris,
promotes its virtues to consumers this way:

Think of irradiated fresh ground beef as insurance against that bad bug, E. coli O157:H7. Assuming you don’t cross contaminate the beef after you open up the package, you’re assured of a safe burger, cooked any way you like it. That’s because we’ve added the food safety benefit of the FDA and USDA-approved irradiation process. And good news: the price is only 10-cents more per pound than our small pack non-irradiated beef. Available in both 80% and 90% leanness, the beef is in a one-pound roll, easy to subdivide for burgers.

Our irradiation process uses concentrated beams of electrical energy at a level to reduce bacteria that may be in the meat. The packaged beef passes through these beams and comes out the other side as a safer product. It’s then delivered fresh to our door. As a reminder, there’s no radioactivity… not in the process, the beef, or in our stores.

Our shoppers tell us that in addition to food safety, they like this product because the airtight roll gives extra days of freshness in your refrigerator. Upon opening, the meat appears naturally darker in color, but oxygen in the air changes the meat to the normal cherry red you expect. This color has nothing to do with irradiation…it is merely a result of the protective packaging. There are “use or freeze by” dates on each roll.

We are committed to finding the safest ways to bring you the world’s best foods. If you’re not buying irradiated ground beef, be sure to grill your burgers for safety’s sake to 160 degrees… color is no indication of doneness.

Part of the problem is that the change is more than irradiated meat; you have a more limited selection of size and packaging options as well. It is also true that consumers have to pay a bit more.

Yet the biggest issue is that consumers don’t actually perceive there to be any real risk. Ms. Burris’s admonition to cook to 160 degrees reaches only a small minority of consumers and, in any case, how many people use a thermometer to cook meatballs or hamburgers?

And the vague urging to do it for “safety’s sake,” as opposed to graphically depicting the children that have died in horrible pain as a result of hemolytic urea syndrome caused by E. coli 0157:H7 in hamburger, is representative of the problem both public health authorities and the food industry find themselves in today: How can they say simultaneously that the food supply is safe but you better pay extra for irradiated food?

The recent news that the FDA has decided to allow irradiation to be used on iceberg lettuce and spinach for purpose of food safety — most irradiation on produce is allowed only in doses large enough to kill insects and extend shelf life — raises the prospect of the long-sought “kill step” that will ensure food safety.

There are some technical issues:

1) Exact dosages and tests to insure quality is maintained will take some time — though tests have been going on a long time and we think that could happen fairly quickly.

2) A more specific obstacle is that the best application for irradiation is to irradiate packaged product such as bagged salads. This is because a sealed product can’t be recontaminated along the supply chain, at least until it hits the consumer’s kitchen. The FDA, although approving the irradiation of the lettuce and spinach, has not approved irradiation of the produce packaging. Once again, we think this is an obstacle that can be quickly overcome.

3) The approval only applies to iceberg lettuce and spinach, so blends with other items are not eligible. Although reading the final rule, the science that FDA relied on would clearly apply just as well to romaine and other items used in blends.

None of these things, though, will be obstacles. In fact, although there are short term capacity constraints, this can be overcome with time, and we doubt it would even cost very much.

The reason the irradiated ground beef costs 10 cents more a pound is not that irradiation costs anywhere near that. It is that small volume irradiation in which product is trucked to an irradiation facility, unpacked, irradiated, put back on the truck, etc., adds to the cost.

In the end, if irradiation really becomes the standard food safety practice, processors such as Fresh Express, Dole, Ready Pac, etc., will build their processing plants with inline irradiation facilities in which packaged product gets irradiated. Without the extra loading, trucking, etc., the costs would be manageable.

Now we suspect — and hope — that some entrepreneur will quickly introduce a niche brand of irradiated produce. Some retailers such as Wegmans will probably at least try it in line with their general commitment to consumer choice. One suspects that those consumers with impaired immune systems, such as those with AIDS or many cancer patients, would be a ready market. There should also be a ready foodservice market at certain hospitals, retirement homes and similar facilities.

These are niche markets though, willing to pay a premium.

In the end, irradiation will not take off as long as public health authorities declare the food supply to be safe. Just look at the distinction between milk and chopped meat. Public health authorities fought hard to require pasteurization of milk. They screamed it was not safe, and the FDA requires milk to be pasteurized in its interstate jurisdiction and most states have followed the practice as well. Recently there has been the growth of a raw milk movement, as we have mentioned in pieces here and here. Still, however, almost all milk is pasteurized.

Despite the food safety risks of ground beef, the public health authorities have made barely a sound. They may attack individual companies during an outbreak, but when the outbreak is over we are back to being told that we have the safest food supply in the world. As a result, barely any ground beef is irradiated.

We are pleased with the new FDA ruling because it really puts the FDA on the spot. It has continued to stick to its ridiculous “zero tolerance” policy for pathogens. Now we will learn whether the FDA is serious or this is just PR.

If FDA is actually serious… that it is the public policy of the United States of America that it is not acceptable any person should ever again fall ill as a result of a pathogen on spinach and iceberg lettuce… then, clearly, it has to mandate irradiation as it does pasteurization. If the FDA elects not to act, then we know it was just kidding all along.

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