WASHINGTON, D.C. - Foodborne pathogens that now infect red meat and poultry may soon be just bad memories to consumers after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave its quick approval for the irradiation of red meat. The decision was widely favored by an industry that has been rocked recently by several meat recalls and wavering consumer confidence.
FDA officials said its actions were based on thorough scientific reviews of a substantial number of studies conducted on the chemical effects of radiation, the impact on nutrient content of irradiated products, potential toxicity concerns and effects of microorganisms in irradiated products.
The reviews paved the way for quick approval of safe irradiation dosage levels for various forms of red meat, such as fresh and frozen. It is now up to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to issue regulations for processing plants to conform to those levels.
Although available for many years to kill salmonella, molds and fungi in poultry, pork, spices and some fresh produce, interest in food purification intensified after the recent recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef contaminated with the Escherichia coli O157:H7. Techniques like irradiation, also known as cold pasteurization, enable meat packers to kill bacteria at the end of the production line, after the product has been sealed and packaged and cannot be further contaminated. This is particularly important in ground beef, where bacteria can easily get beneath the surface of the meat during grinding in the machine.
Food irradiation was endorsed more than 20 years ago by the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Commission. It has also been championed in the past by the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association and by panel members from the American Gastroenterological Association. But the United States was slow in jumping on the food irradiation bandwagon, in part because food corporations said the country's consumers were not demanding it.
Many epidemiologists are calling the FDA decision a "watershed event," comparable to when pasteurization was approved for milk and milk by-products earlier in the century. In the irradiation process, food is bombarded with cobalt gamma radiation-60 at the end stages of processing, which kills the bacteria by fracturing its genetic material. However, the process does not leave the food radioactive, alter the nutritional content of the food or change the flavor or aroma.
"Although the red meat industry has been responsive in implementing methods like steam cleaning for beef carcasses, [these methods] still have only a limited impact on foodborne diseases," said Michael Osterholm, PhD, epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Public Health. "But irradiation will not and should not be a short cut for the meat industry."
"It's a difficult task to educate the not-ready-for-irradiation people about irradiation," said Christine Bruhn, PhD, professor of consumer research at the University of California at Davis. "People have been told for years that if you cook your food properly and clean your kitchen you don't have to worry about problems with meat. But not all of us do that."
Food poisoning has become an increasing concern, and red meat has most often been implicated in epidemics. The most highly publicized events usually involve E. coli O157:H7. But epidemiologists are also finding more dangerous food poisoning incidents involving other bacteria, like listeria, shigella and campylobacter.
Michael Jacobson, MD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, said he would prefer the meat industry use other methods to keep harmful bacteria out of its products. His concern is not the irradiation process itself, but that meat industry processors might become lax in their processing plants and try to cover their mistakes with irradiation.
"Irradiation is not the best way to obtain safe food," said Jacobson. "Other approaches could be used that would achieve the same goal - approaches that would be cheaper, quicker and more acceptable. The bottom line here is that consumers want clean food."
The center has urged instead an alternative: a clean-up of the system from the farm to the supermarket. It suggests a variety of approaches like steam-cleaning beef carcasses, washing animals after slaughter to remove as many germs as possible before de-hyding them, slowing down processing lines and inoculating livestock with "safe" bacteria that would occupy areas that salmonella and other bacteria would infest.
These and other approaches could mitigate the need for irradiation and provide consumers with food that is really clean, Jacobson said.
"Our feeling is that if all that does not work, then we could resort to irradiation," said Jacobson. "But it's not and should not be our first choice."
Jacobson has been encouraging new policy measures that would provide incentives to have cleaner food, such as allowing the USDA to recall products from the marketplace, fine companies that market unsafe food and publicize the contamination rates of every slaughterhouse and processing plant so the public knows who are the careful companies.
"We need to coalesce all the government food safety programs into one separate agency," said Jacobson. "We need to pull them out of the USDA, which is dominated largely by production interests, and pull them out of the FDA, which is preoccupied with drugs and medical devices, and have just one administrator who focuses on food safety."
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