The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said a petition it has received from a meat industry group calling for the use of low-penetration and low-dose electron beam irradiation to kill bacteria such as E. coli on beef carcass surfaces has merit.
Irradiation exposes foods to ionizing radiation that kills insects, moulds and bacterium. The technology is seen by the industry as a means of ensuring food safety and extending shelf life.
Irradiation of raw meat and meat by-products to reduce bacteria populations is already permitted by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the agency requires that these products must be labelled as ‘irradiated’.
The American Meat Industry (AMI), which represents packers and processors of beef, pork, lamb, veal and turkey products, claims that the treatment for chilled beef carcasses proposed in its petition should be deemed a ‘processing aid’ and as such the ‘treated with radiation’ labelling should not apply to meat derived from a carcass treated in this way.
FSIS does not require that the use of substances determined to be processing aids, such as the use of lactic acid as an antimicrobial carcass wash, be declared on product labels
The AMI argues that studies have shown that the reduction of pathogens on the carcass surface using low-dose (I kiloGray kGy) low-penetration (20 milimetres) irradiation does not affect flavour, nutritional quality, appearance or shelf-life of the meat from the carcass.
“The electron beam has a functional effect of reducing pathogens on the carcass surface, but that once the energy from the electrons is absorbed, there are no further functional effects from the irradiation,” states the AMI petition.
The AMI also presented evidence to FSIS demonstrating the effectiveness of the low dose irradiation against E.coli 0157:H7 on the beef carcass.
FSIS will hold a public meeting on the AMI proposal on 18 September in Washington and the agency said that it will accept comments on the petition until 18 October 2008.
The USDA announcement follows the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval last month of the use of irradiation to kill food-poisoning germs in iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach: the agency claims the technology will not adversely affect the safety of these products.
Science Policy Analyst at the Centre for Food Safety, Bill Freese, argues that irradiation avoids tackling the problem at its source.
"Irradiation is not the solution to food-borne illness," said Freese. "In fact, it serves to distract attention from the unsanitary conditions of industrial agriculture that create the problem in the first place."
A spokesperson for US consumer rights group, Food and Water Watch, told FoodProductionDaily.com that it plans to oppose the AMI petition through submission of verbal and written comments.
“It is disappointing that FSIS has abandoned, at least temporarily, its efforts to require more testing for pathogens at slaughterhouses and to take regulatory action for those products that are found to be adulterated,’ said the spokesperson.
She claims that FSIS seems “content on letting the industry continue with sloppy production practices.
“There has been a concerted effort by industry for over a decade to destroy the current labelling requirements for irradiated foods.
“The marketplace has already shown that consumers are reluctant to purchase irradiated food products because of the unknown health effects of consuming a steady diet of irradiated food and the high cost of such food," added the spokesperson.
The Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo ) claims the sector invests $350m annually in beef safety efforts.
E. coli contamination is of particular concern to the US beef industry at present. Last month, Omaha meat packing company Nebraska Beef Ltd recalled 1.36m pounds of beef that may be contaminated with the O157:H7 strain of E. coli, following on from its recall of 5.3m pounds of material used in making ground beef in July after 40 illnesses were reported in connection with it.
FSIS labelled both recalls Class 1, which means the product involved carries a high health risk, and said that the production practices employed by Nebraska Beef were insufficient to effectively control E. coli O157:H7 in their beef products intended for grinding.
FSIS also issued a public health alert in May for beef products from Tyson Fresh Meats due to possible E. coli O157:H7 contamination, while in January, Minnesota-based Rochester Meat Co issued a recall of 188,000 pounds (lbs) of ground beef and other products because of similar concerns.
The agenda for the meeting and the AMI petition are posted on the FSIS website.