CR Quick Take
In our tests of more than 500 meat samples from groceries in 60 cities-the largest test of its kind-we found that irradiated beef and chicken have a slight off-taste and come with the same handling and cooking instructions as regular meat. So they offer no real benefit for the careful cook.
One advantage: Irradiated meat generally has lower bacteria levels than regular meat. As such, it may reduce-but not eliminate-the risk of foodborne illness if your meat is undercooked.
Irradiation has fueled a debate over how best to improve meat safety: by more aggressively preventing contamination in the first place, irradiating possible contaminants in packaged meat, or some combination of both.
In the aftermath of record meat recalls, certain supermarkets and restaurants are touting something new: irradiated chicken and ground beef.
|More on Irradiated Food|
Irradiation "eliminates any bacteria that might exist in food," according to a Food Emporium supermarket flyer. "You canít taste the difference," claims a pamphlet from SureBeam, a leading food irradiator. "Enjoy with confidence!" says a poster advertising irradiated double cheeseburgers at a Minneapolis Dairy Queen. Full-page newspaper ads from Wegmans supermarkets tell customers that they can cook a juicy irradiated burger "the way they like it" and "without worrying about safety."
Consumer Reports put claims like those to the test. Our research, taste tests, and microbial analysis of irradiated and nonirradiated chicken and ground beef--the largest analysis of its kind on meat sold at retail--counter many of the assertions:
ē Bacteria levels in the irradiated, uncooked ground beef and skinless chicken tenders were generally much lower than levels in the nonirradiated meat. But the irradiated meat still contained some bacteria. And, like any meat, irradiated meat can become contaminated if it is handled improperly. Thatís why packages carry the same handling and cooking instructions as nonirradiated meat, including directions to "cook thoroughly."
ē Our trained taste testers noted a slight but distinct off-taste and smell in most of the irradiated beef and chicken we cooked and sampled, likening it to singed hair. In the beef, the taste was detectable even with a bun, ketchup, and lettuce. Because it was usually subtle, however, some consumers may not notice it.
ē Irradiated food is safe to eat, according to federal and world health officials. It certainly does not become radioactive. But a recent study on the chemical byproducts that irradiation creates in meat has led some researchers and the European Parliament to call for further studies.
Wal-Mart, the largest food retailer in the U.S., is testing sales of irradiated meat in Northeast stores and may offer it nationwide. Some 40 other chains already sell it.
Should you buy it? Thereís no reason to if you cook meat thoroughly. Irradiation actually destroys fewer bacteria than does proper cooking.
Irradiation may offer added protection if meat is undercooked, however. Used in institutions such as cafeterias, irradiated meat could help reduce widespread foodborne illness, some experts predict. Thatís worth knowing if you are among those, such as the immunocompromised, at greatest risk from foodborne illness or if you want an extra measure of safety.
But other experts worry that the way irradiation is being promoted gives consumers a false sense of security. They say this end-stage fix also takes the focus off preventing contamination in the first place. Clearly, much more could be done to clean up unsanitary conditions at feedlots, slaughterhouses, processors, cafeterias, and other places where meat is prepared.
WHAT IT CAN AND CANíT DO
Irradiation is the process by which food is bombarded with high-frequency energy capable of breaking chemical bonds. The energy source is electricity (for electron-beam irradiation) or radioactive cobalt-60 (for gamma-ray irradiation).
Food Technology Service, the nationís largest gamma-ray meat irradiator, says the energy passes through food much as "a ray of light passes through a window." But it is a powerful ray; the typical irradiation dose for meat, 1.5 kiloGrays, is 15 million times the energy involved in a single chest X-ray, or 150 times the dose capable of killing an adult.
DISCLOSURE Labels on irradiated meat must include the radura, [right] the international symbol for irradiation.
Irradiation works by damaging the DNA of disease-causing bacteria such as salmonella and the potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7, as well as of insects, parasites, and some spoilage organisms. They become "inactive" because they canít reproduce.
At approved doses, however, irradiation doesnít wipe out all bacteria in meat. Much higher doses would be needed to do that, but higher doses are not used because they would significantly degrade the taste of the food. And irradiation is ineffective against prions, the infectious proteins thought to cause mad-cow disease, because prions contain no DNA. Irradiated meat generally harbors far fewer bacteria than nonirradiated meat, so there is less chance it would make you sick if it were not cooked thoroughly. And experts say there would be fewer germs in drippings that could contaminate other foods from, say, a cutting board. But irradiated meat doesnít protect against other food-handling problems. It offers no added safeguards if it is stored improperly, handled with dirty hands, or tainted from the drippings of some other contaminated food.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE NOW
Federal regulators are paying attention to irradiation because the kinds of organisms it targets in meats are the nationís biggest food health threat. Last year, producers recalled a record 57 million pounds of meat, including ground beef, poultry, and deli meats, because of potentially deadly bacterial contamination. The Food and Drug Administration is considering a petition to approve irradiation for seafood such as clams and for ready-to-eat foods like deli meats, precooked beef patties, and hot dogs.
The government considers irradiation so effective that it allows tainted ground beef that otherwise would be unlawful to sell, such as meat containing E. coli O157:H7, to be irradiated and sold to consumers.
That meat safety needs improving is a given. But irradiation has stoked the debate over how best to do it.
On the one hand, widespread meat irradiation could appreciably reduce food-borne illnesses, says Dr. Robert Tauxe, a medical epidemiologist and chief of the Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
In a study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases in June 2001, he estimated that irradiating half of all ground beef, poultry, pork, and processed meat would prevent 900,000 cases of foodborne infection, 8,500 hospital admissions, 6,000 grave illnesses, and 350 deaths in the U.S. each year, assuming that those foods are the source of half of campylobacter, E. coli O157:H7, listeria, salmonella, and toxoplasma infections.
Such reductions would amount to 6 percent of foodborne illnesses reported each year. The rest of those illnesses can be attributed to other foods, like eggs and seafood, or other problems, such as improper food storage.
By contrast, the CDC says 20 percent of foodborne outbreaks are caused simply by commercial food preparersí poor hygiene, such as failing to wash hands before touching food. The Department of Agriculture reported eliminating 99.9 percent of E. coli O157:H7 in spiked beef samples with a low-tech step: spraying beef with lactic acid, a food preservative with antimicrobial properties, before grinding.
"Itís better to take steps to avoid contaminating food to begin with than it is to try to clean it up afterwards," says Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America and former assistant secretary of the USDA. "But Iím afraid itís human nature not to spend money to change the way animals are raised, or have a trained workforce in meatpacking plants, or upgrade facilities if they can just irradiate food at the end of the line."
That debate is being played out throughout the country:
School lunches. Beginning in January, the USDA says each school district will have the option of ordering irradiated ground beef for its school lunch program.
Want a flyer with that burger?
Since its introduction in major supermarkets such as Food Emporium, Giant Food, Publix, and ShopRite, along with restaurants including Dairy Queen and Embers America, irradiated ground beef has been the subject of marketing blitzes.
Two years ago, the Bush administration proposed allowing irradiated poultry and ground beef into the federal school lunch program instead of requiring that meat be tested for salmonella. That proposal triggered such resistance that the USDA scrapped the plan and banned irradiated foods from the program, which serves 28 million public-school lunches each day. But a provision in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 directed the USDA to drop its restrictions, while continuing salmonella testing.
To garner support, the USDA has awarded $151,000 to the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning to test the effectiveness of sending irradiation-information kits to parents in several school districts.
Meanwhile, the school board of Berkeley, Calif., became one of the first to pass a resolution explicitly prohibiting the purchase of irradiated foods for its schools. Its Nov. 6 resolution noted that there had been "no long-term health and side-effect studies on humans."
Foodborne illness in schools has been a recurring problem. Schools reported roughly 24 outbreaks of foodborne illness each year between 1973 and 1997, according to research reported in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal in July 2002. During that time, 50,000 students were sickened, 1,500 were hospitalized, and 1 child died, says the CDCís Tauxe, who adds that the numbers are probably an underestimate.
"Many of these illnesses should be preventable by making sure the foods are prepared following the usual food-safety guidelines," Tauxe says. "The risk would be further reduced by broader application of irradiation."
The problem is that food safety isnít being adequately addressed. Only one-third of some 800 school food-service directors surveyed in March 2003 by the American School Food Service Association said they have programs that detail where contamination might occur and provide systems to prevent it. That finding prompted the group to ask Congress for money to create such safety systems.
Health. Between 1964 and 1992, three United Nations agencies, including the World Health Organization, convened five expert committees to evaluate studies on the safety of consuming irradiated foods. Each found the foods to be safe.
Recent European research, however, suggests that the substances known as 2-alkylcyclobutanones, unique byproducts created by irradiating fat in a food such as ground beef, may act as tumor promoters in laboratory rats. Authors of the report, released last fall by Germanyís Federal Research Centre for Nutrition in Karlsruhe, say their findings show the need for further study. Meanwhile, the European Parliament in December halted new approvals of irradiated foods going to member nations of the European Union pending more safety studies.
The research was brought to the attention of the FDA by the Washington, D.C.Ėbased nonprofit consumer groups Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety. The FDA is reviewing the research, says George Pauli, the agencyís associate director for science and policy.
WILL THE MARKET DECIDE?
Until the recent marketing blitz for irradiated meat, irradiated food was a nonissue for consumers. For decades the government has allowed certain foods to be irradiated, including wheat and flour, to control insects, and white potatoes, to inhibit sprouting. Since 1985, the government has approved irradiation of spices, fruits, vegetables, pork, and poultry. In 1997 irradiation was OKíd for beef, and in 2000 for fresh eggs.
But it has rarely been used on foods in the U.S., in part because of concerns that consumers wouldnít buy irradiated products. Indeed, when irradiated beef was introduced three years ago in groceries, it was withdrawn because of poor sales.
Today, irradiated beef accounts for less than 5 percent of the 9 billion pounds of ground beef produced annually in the U.S., says the American Meat Institute Foundation, a nonprofit meat industry group. (Irradiated frozen chicken was introduced this winter only in Publix stores; the company would not disclose sales.) In some stores irradiated meat is somewhat more expensive than nonirradiated meat. In others, the prices are comparable.
The labeling of irradiated meat is a subject of debate. Currently, packages of irradiated meat must be marked with the radura, the international symbol of irradiation, and with words such as "treated with irradiation."
But "electronic pasteurization," a term favored by some irradiators, might also be allowed because the 2002 Farm Act broadens the definition of pasteurization and allows anyone to petition the FDA for alternative labeling of irradiated food.
Restaurant patrons and parents may find themselves even more confused. While some restaurants are promoting their use of irradiated meat, no federal regulation requires restaurants or school cafeterias to disclose that they serve it.
What You Can Do
Whatever meat you buy, follow these tips:
What CU is Doing
Consumers Union believes that the best way to improve meat quality is to clean up the food-supply chain and strengthen USDA authority over meat safety.
Schools should be given the resources to assess food handling, preparation, and storage procedures and to fix problems.
CU supports further tests of chemical byproducts created by meat irradiation.
Irradiated foods should continue to be labeled "irradiated." Calling them "pasteurized" or anything else is misleading.
More care must be taken to ensure that information consumers receive concerning irradiated foods is accurate.
To learn more about CUís position or to contact the appropriate authorities about food labeling, school lunches, and related issues, visit www.consumersunion.org.
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