Part II in a two-part series on food irradiation.  On foodborne illness outbreaks caused by ground beef, fresh leafy greens, and spices–all foods that could arguably be made safer through irradiation–and the future of the technology and its impact on the safety of the food supply. 

Part I focused on the science behind the technology

Ground Beef

In the last several years, there have been a series of recalls and media cases due to contaminated meat.  In 1998, Sara Lee had to recall millions of pounds of meat after a number of people died in a Listeria outbreak.  In 2000, a three-year-old girl passed away in Milwaukee after eating watermelon that was cross-contaminated with E. coli O157:H7-contaminated beef tri-tip.  And, let’s not forget Stephanie Smith, the 20-year-old dancer who contracted E. coli and was left paralyzed after eating a hamburger at a family barbeque in 2007.  Smith developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and spent nine months in the hospital, including two months in a medically induced coma.  All this from a hamburger.

Most recently in the news, a Colorado company has issued a recall of 66,000 pounds of ground bison meat after federal agricultural officials linked it to E. coli.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that the recalled bison meat was sold in supermarkets nationwide between May 21 and May 27.

“I personally have cared for a little girl who died of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) from eating a hamburger,” epidemiologist Harry Hull says. “It just tears up my heart every time I think about it. Those kinds of things are by and large, avoidable. There are kids dying every year in this country unnecessarily because we don’t irradiate ground beef.”

Some symptoms of E. coli include bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps, and in most severe cases, red blood cells can fracture and disintegrate, causing the kidneys to shut down, according to Hull. Children, pregnant women, and older men and women are more prone to foodborne illnesses.

irradiated-burger-featured.jpgRon Eustice of the Minnesota Beef Council claims that there has been an increase in the amount of samples positive for E. coli O157:H7 during the last three years. The number of positive samples in 2010, he says, is greater than the number of positive samples in 2009. “We’ve got to educate our consumers to cook their hamburgers to 160 degrees, to use a temperature thermometer or as an additional tool, to use food irradiation to make sure that that hamburger is safe,” Eustice says. “It is an additional tool to help to protect the lives of our consumers, to protect the lives of our children, and vulnerable adults.”

Ground beef and meat have been a source of E. coli illnesses for years. As these incidents continue to increase and filter through the media, people are looking towards irradiation more and more.

Today, fresh and frozen ground beef is available at thousands of supermarkets nationwide. Frozen irradiated patties are available through mail-order, home delivery. Omaha Steaks and Schwan’s both produce irradiated beef.

“I love nothing more than eating a good hamburger.  I’m a real Iowa kid.  Today you can engineer in hamburger production a very high level of safety,” Mike Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, says.

Lettuce & Spinach

When asked if they remember an E. coli outbreak from recent history, many consumers are quick to recall the 2006 E. coli outbreak traced to Dole baby spinach in which 204 people became ill with E. coli infections and three people–two elderly women and a young boy–died.  Recently, Ready Pac Foods Inc. has recalled hundreds of baby spinach packages in California, Washington, and Arizona, due to fear that the company’s spinach may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.  No illnesses have been found in connection with this recall.

Due to a number of outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 several years back, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in August of 2008 that it will allow the irradiation on fresh iceberg lettuce and spinach to kill bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella.  While some critics argue that the technology would remove essential vitamins and create incentive for farmers to slack on sanitation, many suggest that irradiation is precisely the answer. According to Bill Marler, a nationally known food safety advocate and attorney who represents victims of foodborne illness outbreaks, irradiation will kill bacteria inside and outside of the edible plant tissues that regular washing will not likely eliminate. Marler also suggests that food irradiation will enhance food safety, prevent illnesses, outbreaks, and recalls. “Irradiation is not a replacement for good agricultural practices and management practices on the farm and during harvest, transportation, and processing,” Marler says.

Some critics associate “irradiation” with “atomic” and “nuclear”, generating a level of uncertainty and hesitance on the process, especially for produce items. According to experts like Marler, the primary reason consumers might not buy irradiated foods is lack of information about the risks and benefits and often, even misinformation.

When Eustice gives lectures on irradiation, he has the crowd complete a survey about their attitude towards irradiation before and after they have all the information. “We move from 50 to 60 percent of positive attitudes before to as high as 80 or even 90 percent positive after they’ve had some information,” Eustice says. “We know that there’s 10 to 15 percent of the population that are negative towards not only irradiation, but every technology that’s out there. There are simply anti-technology people.”

Experts like Osterholm suggest that often it’s not a lack of information, but simply misinformation. “There is so much misinformation spread out there by people who really don’t have consumers at heart–they have their own personal agendas,” Osterholm says. They don’t have to be accountable for why parents learn why their child is not only infected by E. coli infection and has HUS, but is about to die. These people don’t have to deal with that. And, for those of us that do, we see such a needless waste of life because of this misinformation about food irradiation.”


irradiated-spices-featured.jpgAccording to Eustice, one-third, or 175 million pounds, of the commercial spices that are marketed in the United States today are irradiated. Unlike meat and produce, which are required to come with a Radura label, spices have no such condition. Irradiated spices do not need to be labeled if they are used as ingredients in other food products. “[Spices] are a very small part of the mix. They’re mostly used as an ingredient in sausages and salami and other products,” Eustice says.

Earlier this year, Daniele Inc., a Rhode Island company, recalled its pepper-coated salami products after state and federal public health officials identified the pepper the company used to coat the products as the source of a nationwide Salmonella outbreak.  At least 272 people became ill with Salmonella after consuming the products.  For years, spices have been irradiated in the United States, but the process has been hidden. Due to use of spices as ingredients in other foods, especially ready-to-eat foods, irradiated spices have not been marketed to the public. According to the
FDA regulations, such products don’t have to be labeled as containing irradiated ingredients.

While a large amount of commercial spices are irradiated today, McCormick & Co. is one major seller of retail spices that does not use irradiation on any of its consumer products. According to a 2010 article in CIDRAP, Laurie Harrsen, a company spokeswoman said that McCormick’s uses steam sterilization and has no plans of irradiation, due to the belief of insufficient consumer acceptance of the process. The company does, however, use irradiation if specifically asked to do so by an industrial food customer.

Aside from irradiation, steam sterilization and fumigation are used to kill microorganisms in spices. But, according to Eustice, there’s a growing movement towards irradiation of spices. “It’s the most effective technology in that it does not change the flavor of the spices where any type of a heat treatment could effect the quality and the flavor of those spices,” Eustice says.

Where the Future Lies

Today, more than 40 countries use food irradiation as an additional tool for food safety. And, while there are still those who remain skeptical about the process, there has been a 300 percent increase in the amount of irradiated produce that’s being marketed in the United States in the last two and a half to three years, according to Eustice. “Three years ago, 10 million pounds of irradiated produce was being marketed and consumed in the U.S.  Today, it’s is 30 million pounds of irradiated produce,” Eustice says.

And, the market continues to expand across borders. Many international countries, such as Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, as well as Mexico and India are marketing irradiated food items in the U.S.

“I hope over time that it becomes the norm,” Osterholm says. “We have to do a lot of educating to the public so that they become more rational about what’s happening. I think we also really need to help educate policy makers and leaders about why if they were to take certain steps to ensure that food irradiation was more routinely used, we can have dramatic reduction of illnesses.”

Osterholm also suggests that we take the statistics and data on the number of outbreaks and deaths and use it to improve the system and prevent it from ever happening again. “We do very little with the data we collect in this country on foodborne disease occurrence.  It is a systematic way, bringing back that into everyday food production, food delivery, food consumption, and making certain we do everything we can to eliminate the possible sources,” Osterholm says.

For now, while food irradiation continues to grow nationwide, it remains a controversy among consumers.

“For many people, foodborne disease will be an inconvenience, for some it’ll be a serious illness and for others, it’ll be a death sentence,” Osterholm says. “I think we have a hard time conveying to the public, go ahead, eat everyday and enjoy your food, and now occasionally you’ll get foodborne disease if you are careless about how you prepare your food or if the product you purchase is contaminated at the source and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Eustice has had his mother-in-law over for dinner once a week for years. When it’s hamburger night in the Eustice household, Ron serves his mother-in-law only one kind of hamburger. “For the last ten years, the only kind of ground beef that has been served in our home is irradiated ground beef,” Eustice says. “In fact, that’s what I’m having for dinner tonight.”