Last Friday, Dr. Betsy Booren, Director of Scientific Affairs at the American Meat Institute, received a long-awaited letter from the Food Safety Inspection Service.  It had been five long years almost to the day since the AMI had petitioned them to “Recognize the Use of E-beam on Carcasses as a Processing Aid.”

AMI asked for official recognition of low dose, low penetration electron beam (e-beam) irradiation applied to the surface of chilled beef carcasses as a processing aid. It would exempt treated beef from irradiation labeling, a current requirement that the trade association fears would frighten some consumers and limit sales.

For most of that time, the FSIS had been dead silent while the AMI kept up the pressure, asking for a decision on a petition that had more than enough science to support it.  For most of that time, the petition might have been ‘lost’ in some odd file in some labyrinthine building where politically uncomfortable requests are supposed to go to die.

Dr. Richard Raymond, appointed USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety in 2005 and the presiding officer responsible for overseeing the policies and programs of the FSIS during the early days of their non-decision, told me, “AMI sent the petition over to FSIS just before I got sworn in. The very first I even heard about it was from AMI the summer of ’08 after I had announced I was leaving Oct 1. The petition had sat in (Dan) Engeljohn’s office for three years with not one single action being taken. I think he thought he should keep it from me for fear I would want to move forward on it. All I had time to do was put together a conference on Sept 18, 2008, for industry and consumers to be able to at least air and voice their science and their concerns. There is at least a public record of those thoughts now.” 

Regardless of where the petition sat during those years or Dr. Engeljohn’s intentions, here is what he wrote to Dr. Booren:

“This letter is in response to your July 8, 2005 submission, Citizens Petition to Recognize the Use of E-beam on Carcasses as a Processing Aid. In your petition you requested that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) officially recognize low dose, low penetration electron beam (e-beam) irradiation applied to the surface of chilled beef carcasses as a processing aid and, thus, such beef would be exempt from labeling. After reviewing the available information associated with this request (refer to attachment 1),

FSIS believes that beef carcass geometry may lead to an uneven absorbed dose and is pertinent to the low dose aspect of the AMI petition, even though the petition did not provide a definition or criteria to use to define low dose or low penetration. In addition, because absorbed dose is accumulated upon each exposure of treated beef, such treated beef would need to be controlled in a manner to ensure that the total absorbed dose does not exceed the maximum approved absorbed dose. The petition did not address the control of potential multiple application of treatment.

Consequently, FSIS has determined that the petition lacks sufficient detail to warrant investment in development of a rulemaking at this time. FSIS is denying the petition without prejudice. AMI may submit a revised petition for consideration addressing the issues discussed in greater detail in the attachment.

Meanwhile, establishments can use the irradiation treatment on chilled beef carcasses as long as the product meets the requirements of 9 CFR 424.21 for total absorbed dose and 9 CFR 424.22 (c)(4) for labeling.”

The AMI, having waited more-or-less patiently with hat-in-hand for half a decade was disappointed.  Although I’m sure loud cries of anguish and a cuss word or two erupted from their offices late Friday when the letter hit Booren’s desk, James H. Hodges, president, American Meat Institute Foundation, kept his powder dry and politely but firmly responded, “AMI is disappointed that after more than five years of deliberation FSIS has refused to remove a roadblock for the use of a safe and proven technology that can further improve the safety of meat and poultry products. 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 gently pointed out that “All technical issues related to how carcass irradiation is applied could have and would have been resolved during the rulemaking process to allow irradiation to be treated and labeled in the same manner as all other processing aids. Given the substantial food safety benefits this technology has proven to offer, AMI will continue to work with FSIS to resolve these labeling questions.”

In other words, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings and the folks at the AMI aren’t ready to warble. They’ll just dust off their jeans — being a Washington-based association, let’s amend that to say ‘dust off their Brooks Brothers suits’ — reword the petition and resubmit.  Of course, they’ll write themselves a note to check back with the FSIS on July 8, 2016.

A miffed and puzzled Dr. Raymond said, “I think FSIS just blew a chance to make beef even safer than it is right now. If we can blast ground beef with high dose, penetrating radiation, what the heck is behind the reasoning to deny the petition for whole carcass, low dose irradiation to be considered a processing aid? Is this irradiation really more dangerous to my health than carcasses dripping lactic acid, or ground beef being held together by Transglutaminase, or “meat glue?” That stuff got past FDA using GRAS policy and I eat it all the time.”

Knowing the emotionally loaded angles that anti-irradiation groups use and their dogged dismissal of scientific fact, Raymond said, “How many more kids have to suffer and/or die before STOP will say enough is enough? Too many lines have been drawn in the sand for science to have a chance.”

Harlan Clemmons, President of Sadex, the leading provider of e-beam irradiation services – they prefer the term ‘cold-pasteurization — and one of the most vocal proponents of properly used irradiation, differed with Hodges.  Clemmons said the “petition was correctly denied by FSIS because of known and unanswered problems concerning carcass irradiation.”

Clemmons told me that “In 2009, Dr. R. Bruce Miller, the leading authority on food irradiation equipment in the United States, commented to Dr. Dan Schaefer, Director of Research & Development, Cargill Meat Solutions, that in Dr. Miller’s opinion, it is probably NOT possible to even create an e-beam irradiation system that could accomplish carcass irradiation. . .because of the irregular shapes, sizes and folds in carcasses.”

“I agree with AMI,” Clemmons said, “when it stated that irradiation is a safe and proven technology that can further improve the safety of meat and poultry products.”

Clemmons looks at the use of irradiation differently than the folks at AMI. Fearing the problems he believes are inherent with the irregular shape of beef carcasses, he wants the process used later in the production and distribution system.  “Properly applied food irradiation of the final packaged food product in a validated and verified HACCP plan will reduce lethal mutant and antibiotic resistant strains of E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Listeria to non-detectable levels in final packaged food products,” he said. (The emphasis is his.)