USDA unveils proposed rules for meat irradiation

USDA unveils proposed rules for meat irradiation

Judy Keller

WASHINGTON, DC — FEDERAL regu- lators are now looking at such measures as irradiation to kill bacteria in raw meat.

Since 1997, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have wrangled with approving irradiation to kill bacteria in meat. Although the process was approved for poultry in 1993, the USDA only unveiled proposed rules for meat this past February, with a comment period that ended April 26. Final approval could come as early as July or August, industry sources say. The USDA was more conservative in its predicting, estimating completion by the end of this year.

Preliminary data from a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study on foodborne pathogens shows that the rate of E.coli 0157:H7 rose 22 percent to 2.8 cases per 100,000 Americans last year. The bacteria causes hemorrhaging and death in children, and is most often found in raw meat such as ground beef that has not been thoroughly cooked. The CDC information was gathered from cases reported by public health departments in Minnesota, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, New York and Oregon and may not be as conclusive as a national summary, although the data was presented as such.

Although a recent string of recalls by U. S. companies for hot dogs, lunch meat, milk and other foods tainted with a deadly strain of Listeria has made headlines nationwide, the USDA`s unveiling of proposed meat irradiation rules is not in response to this, but is simply part of the long rules approval process.

While the technology could have killed Listeria monocytogenes, the deadly strain that recently contaminated hot dogs and lunch meats made by Bil Mar, a Sara Lee Corp. plant in Michigan, the proposed rules apply only to raw meat, and not to cooked products such as hot dogs or lunch meats. Had the rules been approved sooner, there likely would have been no impact on the outcome of the Listeria outbreak.

“Yet just think how long this approval has been going on and how much food pathogens could have been reduced if the approval had come quickly,” says Tim Willard, spokesman for the National Food Processors Association. “Rules for cooked products would naturally follow. We have long endorsed irradiation as a tool that could ensure cold cuts, hot dogs and other cooked products are sterile at packaging.”

Irradiation effectively kills such foodborne pathogens as E. coli 1957:H7, Listeria, campylobacter and salmonella. USDA`s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) wants to amend the meat inspection regulations to allow ionizing radiation for refrigerated or frozen raw meat, and meat byproducts. At the same time, FSIS proposes to revise the regulations for the irradiation of poultry so that they are as consistent as possible with the proposed regulations for meat food products.

Jenny Scott, senior director of the National Food Processors Association food safety program, explains that food irradiation is done by exposing food to high levels of radiant energy. Such energy includes the microwave and infrared radiation that heat food during cooking, as well as the visible light or ultraviolet light used to dry food and to kill surface microorganisms. Ionizing radiation, resulting from cobalt-60, or from cesium-137, X-ray machines, or electron accelerators, penetrates deeply into food, killing insect pests and microorganisms without raising the temperature of the food significantly. But food temperature is still a critical control point, as the food must still be refrigerated or frozen.

“The most common forms of irradiation are brief doses of gamma rays or treatment with electron beams,” Scott says. “Gamma rays penetrate more deeply into the food, whereas electron beams affect a thin layer or mostly the surface.” She adds that the procedure would add up to five cents per pound to the cost of ground beef according to USDA estimates, and that it affects the taste of the product only minimally.

Straightforward? Not so, says the FDA. According to Section 201(s) of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, radiation used to treat food is considered a “food additive.” Because of this, the FDA has jurisdiction on labeling irradiated meat, and has launched its own review of how to label irradiated products. Right now, labeling calls for displaying the international symbol for radiation on the packaging.

Labeling is a key issue because many processors feel consumers will view the radiation symbol as a warning and avoid buying the product. Educating consumers will be a huge task, warns Beth Gaston, spokeswoman for the USDA.

“The USDA views irradiation as an effective tool in food safety,” Gaston says. “But nobody believes there`s a magic silver bullet out there that meat plants can use to reduce pathogens. It doesn`t replace current good manufacturing practices, and using it doesn`t mean companies can have lax sanitation in their plants.”

What the proposed rules do is simply allow irradiation to be used as part of the process — but the rules do not mandate that meat processors use radiation; rather, they outline requirements when irradiation is chosen. The irradiation process becomes a critical control point in a company`s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan. The new rules do not specify what doses of radiation should be used, and they amend the rules requiring specific doses for poultry, so that these will be consistent with rules suggested for meat. Also, the rules apply only to meat that is refrigerated; irradiation is not a substitute for keeping meat at safe temperatures. The radiation machinery must be licensed and used by trained personnel. FSIS inspectors will review documentation of the irradiation process, as it will be considered a critical control point under HACCP.

“The focus is on killing pathogens and extending shelf life. Irradiation isn`t a substitute for a clean operation,” says Pete Ellis, president and CEO of Food Technologies Service Inc. in Mulberry, FL. He should know. His plant has been irradiating poultry since 1993 when irradiation for poultry was approved.

His one beef with the proposed rules? “It`s ridiculous that the government considers irradiation a food additive. It`s a process, and nothing remains in the meat that can be detected,” he says.

The United Nation`s World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and other health organizations generally endorse irradiation of food products to control foodborne diseases. The Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Cattlemen`s Beef Association also endorse its use.


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