Safety, cost of irradiated meat debated

by David Anderson

A week after several large grocery chains, including Cub Foods, Lunds, Byerly’s and Rainbow Foods, started selling irradiated meat in the Twin Cities, local distributors and consumers are divided on the safety and affordability of the new product.
Minnesotans are among the first in the United States to buy meat that has been irradiated, a treatment method heralded by Minnesota health officials as a major advance in food safety.
“It’s been something that we looked at for some time,” said Rita Simmer, a spokeswoman for SuperValu, a parent company of Cub Foods. “We believe that this is a positive step.”
University Dining Services officials say it might be three years before irradiated meat makes it to University menus. They currently have no plans to bring the product to campus, said Rebecca Sushak, a dining services assistant manager.
Critics such as coordinators at the campus-based North Country Co-op grocery store argue the safety of irradiation — particularly in the long term — has yet to be proven.
The store’s policy is to sell food grown organically or with the least processing possible. Joyce Raaen, a North Country Co-op coordinator, said customers wrote in saying they didn’t even want to hear about irradiated meat.
Dr. Michael Jacobson, the executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science and Public Interest, said irradiation causes a slight decrease in certain nutrients.
Jacobson also said the use of irradiation will take the attention away from food-handling hygiene. The science center also advocates other, more conventional meat processing methods, such steam pasteurization, that it says are cheaper.
Ted Labuza, a University food sciences professor who supports irradiating meat, says other alternatives are also being developed, such as pressure pasteurization, which involves subjecting the meat to extraordinarily high pressure to kill bacteria.
Beam it clean
The process of irradiation, or “electronic pasteurization,” uses commercial electricity to kill bacteria, parasites and other disease-causing living organisms such as Campylobacter, listeria, E. coli and salmonella. Center for Disease Control documents indicate 5,000 to 9,000 people die each year from food-borne illnesses.
Aggie Leitheiser, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Health Protection Bureau, said irradiation has been used on produce for a number of years and is currently used in more than 40 countries.
For example, medical equipment and products such as tampons and body bags are sterilized through irradiation, Labuza said. And the radiation doses used for food is much smaller than the widely used products being irradiated, he said.
To market, to market
Shane Boyd, a spokesman for Fleming, a parent company of the Twin Cities-based Rainbow Foods, said the company decided to sell irradiated food essentially as a trial.
“If this is something that shoppers are interested in, this is something we want to provide,” he said.
Though new products typically are priced higher than those already in the market, Jacobson said some Twin Cities stores are charging up to 75 cents more — instead of 3 to 5 cents — per pound for irradiated meat than for non-irradiated meat.
Cub Foods refuted the claims, saying Jacobson’s numbers were inaccurate.
Despite the controversy, irradiated meat supporters expect the product will eventually be accepted by the public. The arguments against irradiated meat mimic those made 50 years ago when milk pasteurization was first introduced, Labuza said.
“There’s no way ever to prove anything is absolutely safe,” he said. “I would choose to feed it to my children and to myself, because I know they’re not going to get food pathogens.”

David Anderson covers University communities and welcomes comments at [email protected]