Two and half weeks before The New York Times put the beef industry’s safety flaws under a microscope, the meat industry had renewed its campaign for beef carcass irradiation starting with the new administration right where it left off the old one.

In a letter to Jerold R. Mande, the deputy Under Secretary for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the American Meat Institute’s James H. Hodges laid his cards on the table and made a pointed request.

“The action pending before USDA is very simple, ” he wrote.  “AMI has asked that FSIS recognize e-beam irradiation as a processing aid when applied to the surface of chilled beef carcasses and that the agency treat this process no differently that it treats any other processing aid.”

Irradiation kills insects, molds, and bacterium.  If defined as a “processing aid,” like the lactic acid used as a antimicrobial wash, the meat industry would not be required to include irradiation information on product labels.

“AMI respectfully requests the opportunity to meet with you to resolve any issues of concern and to clarify any misunderstanding that may exist regarding the regulatory process to implement this promising technology,” Hodges requested.

So after The New York Times last Sunday published: “The Burger That Shattered Her Life: Trail of E. coli Shows Flaws in Ground Beef Inspection System,” AMI was ready with an “if only USDA had approved” type of response.

AMI President J. Patrick Boyle, in a letter to the editor, said new technologies and processes to enhance meat and poultry safety require USDA approval.  “For example,” he wrote, “AMI submitted a petition five years ago to use carcass irradiation–a process to reduce or eliminate pathogens like E. coli–but we are still waiting for the department to initiate a rulemaking on its efficacy.”

The AMI petition for carcass irradiation was filed July 8, 2005.  Three years of internal efforts within FSIS made it appear that the request was at the finish line.  Prior to a Sept. 18, 2008 public meeting on the issue, FSIS announced it found the petition had “merit.”

Since 1999, FSIS has permitted the use of ionizing radiation for treating meat, meat byproducts, and certain meat food products so long as labels disclose the product is irradiated.  But putting radiation labels on food has not gained consumer acceptance.

AMI’s request is different in that it wants to allow low-dose e-beam radiation over the surface of chilled carcasses as a processing aid and not disclose that the meat has been irradiated on labeling.

E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens present on carcasses are a result of cross-contamination from the hides or intestines, which are removed fairly early in the slaughtering process.

The whole beef carcass goes through several more steps in the slaughterhouse before meat is cut and boxed.

After inspection, the carcasses are run through steam, hot water, and organic acids to reduce bacteria levels.  Electrical stimulation is applied to improve meat tenderness.

Carcasses are then chilled to control the growth of microorganisms.  The meat industry would like to run the carcasses through e-beam radiation after the carcass has been chilled.   The carcasses would then be cut and boxed for shipment.

Last September, FSIS announced that USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center found the process effective for reducing levels of E. coli O157:H7.

Research showed low e-beam irradiation was effective just on the surface of the carcass, and did not change the color, odor, taste, or nutrient levels of the meat.

And, FSIS had the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) green light to go ahead with low e-beam irradiation as a processing aid.

There was to be certain opposition to the meat industry’s plan.  Many food safety and consumer advocates see e-beam irradiation as an excuse for not cleaning the industrial system that delivers feces-covered cattle to the slaughterhouse in the first place.

But, just as it was about to happen last September, the clock ran out.  Key people like Dr. Richard Raymond, Under Secretary for Food Safety, left government.  The Bush Administration ended, and AIM petition remained for the next guy.