Eighteen months ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) signaled that the meat industry’s 2005 request to use low-dose irradiation as a processing aid to reduce unwanted microbes — and not have to label the meat as irradiated — was not getting much traction.

Late last week, FSIS finally issued its official decision on the petition: denied.

The American Meat Institute Foundation (AMI) had sought acceptance for chilled beef carcasses to be treated with low dose, low penetration electron beam irradiation to reduce disease-causing pathogens like E. coli. Winning approval of irradiation as a processing aid would mean the treated beef would be exempt from irradiation labeling. The industry doesn’t like the label requirement, because it thinks consumers misunderstand and won’t accept irradiation, despite its benefit in reducing health risks.

In a letter to the AMI, FSIS said it “has determined that the petition lacks sufficient detail” to warrant a new rule on irradiation as a processing aid, citing a lack of definition for the terms “low dose” or “low penetration,” as well as the lack of criteria in controlling the total absorbed dose.

AMI Foundation president Jim Hodges said those issues could have been worked out.

“FSIS cites technical reasons for the denial of AMI’s petition to treat carcass irradiation as a processing aid, when the petition simply asked FSIS to initiate the process of making a labeling policy change to encourage the use of irradiation technology,” Hodges said in a statement.

FSIS said the petition was being denied “without prejudice” and that AMI could submit a revised petition addressing the government’s concerns. Meanwhile, chilled beef carcasses can be treated with irradiation so long as the products meet existing requirements for total absorbed dose and for labeling, FSIS stated.

Irradiation as a food-safety technique has long been a controversial issue. On one hand, the process does not present health hazards or adversely affect a food’s nutritional value.  On the other hand, it’s an end-stage fix that doesn’t address preventing fecal contamination of the food supply in the first place.

Some say it’s a better alternative than others.

In January 2010, when the FSIS indicated its intent to reject or at least table the AMI’s petition, former under secretary of food safety Dr. Richard Raymond expressed disappointment, especially because of revelations that some beef products were being treated with ammonia as a processing aid to help reduce E. coli counts.

“So now the USDA does not have the spine to take on the consumer groups over another processing aid that would save lives,” wrote Raymond at the time.

  • Stephen Grau

    I am biased since I work in public health and have worked with radiological issues as well as being a health inspector. I think ALL PHF/TCS foods should be irradiated. Many foods are, and the ones who are ignorant to the safeness of this process are probably also ignorant to the small discreet label already being used. I hope this process gains more acceptance in the future. The USDA should do a study on the psychological effects on the sticker, as well as encourage the FDA to publicize the process.

  • William Sperber

    The frequent claim that irradiation is “…an end stage fix that doesn’t address preventing fecal contamination of the food supply in the first place…” needs to be reconsidered and changed. Had earlier regulators and policy shapers applied such logic, the food industry would not be able to use thermal processes to pasteurize raw milk and other foods. Similarly, claims that “sterilized poop is still poop” also discourage progress toward a safer food supply. Even though the food industry must continue to do everything possible to reduce “fecal contamination of the food supply,” it will nevertheless often be necessary to apply end treatments such as irradiation and thermal pasteurization to assure food safety.

  • dangermaus

    Whether irradiation is deemed “safe” by experts on the topic is not the only consideration on the topic. If people want to know whether their food has been subjected to a given procedure, processors shouldn’t be allowed to hide it from them.
    If the big agri-business players want people to not be afraid of irradiation, they should pool some money and try to educate the public about their views on the subject.

  • Minkpuppy

    I had the opportunity to inspect an irradiation facility several years ago and the QC/Food Safety manager taught me a lot. If there’s still feces on the carcass, they can’t guarantee the promised log reduction after treatment. The plants still have to remove shit before hand. As a former inspector in a beef plant, I can tell you right now that the packers will stop addressing fecal contamination because they’re going to irradiate the carcass anyway. It’s a game they play with inspection already. They let dirty carcasses run down the line, put up with line stoppages for trimming feces off, then miraculously clean up enough carcasses for the offline inspector’s carcass check to pass. When the offline inspector goes back to the office, the line cranks back up and the shit keeps rolling down the line. If carcass irradiation is put into place, they’ll be screaming bloody murder every time the line stops for feces because they think the irradiation will somehow miraculously fix it. The production guys in the plants don’t understand the technology and its limits and that’s the obstacle we have to get past as inspectors.
    Irradiation doesn’t sterilize the meat or the shit. It reduces pathogen loads only. Believe me, you don’t want to eat meat sterilized with irradiation. It’s nasty stuff–I doubt a buzzard would it. However, a much lower effective dose that results in a significant log reduction will provide a product that tastes and looks the same as non-irradiated product with no significant quality or nutritional differences. The safety of irradiation is already proven–it’s one of the most studied food treatments out there. However, it’s not necessarily an ideal treatment for all foods.
    I’m all for irradiation of cuts and ground products that have already gone through proper sanitary dressing procedures and numerous interventions if they want to do it. It’s adds a little extra insurance. Carcass irradiation cannot ensure a uniform dose. Some areas will get too much and others not enough which essentially makes it a waste of time and money. It’s much more effective if the carcass is broken into it’s component parts.
    Ultimately, I think there’s too many out there that see irradiation as the magic cure-all for foodborne illnesses. I see it as something that will be too easily abused as a band-aid solution instead of addressing the source of the pathogens in the first place.
    A very jaded Inspector Minkpuppy

  • dangermaus, actually they have and they also have a label to make it clear that the meat has been irradiated. There is abundance of information about the irradiation of food from
    The American Council on Science and Health, founded in 1978 by a group of scientists who had become concerned that many important public policies related to health and the environment did not have a sound scientific basis.
    Their mission is to ensure that peer-reviewed mainstream science reaches the public, the media, and the decision-makers who determine public policy. The objective is to restore science and common sense to personal and public health decisions, in order to foster a scientifically sound and sensible public health policy for the American people. ACSH is committed to improving communication and dialogue between the scientific/medical community and the public and the media, in an effort to ensure that the coverage of health issues is based on scientific facts – not hyperbole, emotion and ideology.
    they have a publication that can be viewed at http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.198/pub_detail.asp
    A recent conference was in motreal and information can be found at http://www.iiaglobal.org/index.php?page=imrp-montreal-2011&hl=en_US/LRnQY/
    The MN beef Council has information about food irradiation at
    Industry has gotten together in the Food Irradiation Processing Alliance http://www.fipa.us/
    GMA has information has booklet Food Irradiation: A Guide for Consumers, Policy Makers and the Media;
    Grocery Manufacturers of America publication; Down load at: http://www.gmaonline.org/downloads/research-and-reports/SPP_Irradiation5.pdf
    For people with comprised immunue systems, irradiation offers them a wider variety of food than they could obtain using other methods of sterilization and pastuerization.
    In addition to food, irradiation is used to sterilized many surgerical instruments and devices that otherwise could not be used.
    One of the big communicaiton issues is that information about irradiation doesn’t draw media attention like the Casey Anthony trail, so it is hard to get the word out.
    Also I wonder are you willing to read and evaluate anything that industry publishes from your previous comments?
    For a variety of sources –
    FAO and International Atomic Energy Agency have a publication at http://tc.iaea.org/tcweb/publications/factsheets/FoodIrradiation.pdf
    University of Georgia (US)
    Univ of Calif at Davis
    Iowa State Extension
    Idaho State University
    County of Hawaii
    So you can take your pick of resources