IBA Food Safety pushes irradiation envelope

Consumer education will take precedent in success

Chris Anderson

SCHAUMBURG, IL—Years ago, the names Listeria and E. coli were known only by food-safety scientists. Today, in the wake of numerous E. coli outbreaks and food product recalls caused by Listeria, they have become household words. And if more and more Americans are beginning to feel that the safety of the food they put on the table is a gamble, IBA Technologies Ltd., is placing a huge bet that these same consumers will welcome irradiated food into their homes.

IBA's first wager is its gamma irradiation plant here that recently received a Grant of Inspection by the USDA to process beef, pork and poultry products. The existing facility has provided irradiation services for 20 years notably in the food packaging, spices and medical device industries and is one of only a handful of such operations approved to process meat.

The irradiation process kills pathogens and enzymes by exposing products to measured doses of radiant energy—either electrons, gamma rays or x-rays. But the big question is whether large meat processors will jump to have their products irradiated, especially when consumers' understanding and comfort with the sanitation method is still in question.

“Of the processors I have talked with, we have a number of very large companies that are prepared to be number two to market,” says Chip Colonna, vice president of perishable food of IBA's Memphis, TN-based Food Safety division.

IBA Processing Center – Bridgeport, NJ
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Despite endorsements of irradiation from the World Health Organization, The American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, irradiation appears to have an uphill battle in the arena of public opinion. “I think if you asked people at a cocktail party if they would eat irradiated foods, the first visions some would have is of Three Mile Island and radioactivity,” says Colonna. “That is just not the case. You get more radiation simply by going outside than you do from irradiated foods.”

Jeffrey Barach, vice president of the National Food Processors Association (Washington, DC), says much of the resistance to irradiated products is based on a lack of understanding and information. “Our focus groups show that after viewing an educational video, people understand the benefits provided by irradiation,” he says.

In addition, irradiation providers would like to find an alternate term for the process as they believe the name itself gives rise to many of the public's fears. “Cold pasteurization” has been suggested, though Barach says there is not unanimous agreement among food processors on using the term.

Aside from meat and poultry—products that have been approved for irradiation for less than two years—the FDA is expected to approve irradiation of ready-to-eat foods such as sandwich meats, hot dogs and bagged salads early this year.

When that happens, IBA will be ready.

It's newest facility, an e-beam and x-ray irradiation plant in Bridgeport, NJ, will soon become operational. “We're viewing that facility as a regional service center and that will allow companies in the Northeast to run test market quantities,” says Colonna.

Continuing its aggressive push, IBA announced in late January a deal with cold storage giant AmeriCold Logistics to construct an irradiation plant inside the nation's largest cold storage facility in Carthage, MO. “Irradiation is a process that many of our customers are evaluating,” says AmeriCold CEO Dan McNamara in a statement announcing the deal. “As the leading cold storage provider in the U.S., we believe that AmeriCold Logistics is in a good position to assist the food industry by providing them with access to improved food safety technology.”

All of which fits with IBA's grand vision. “As larger processors look into irradiation, they are going to look for facilities that can either attach to, or are right next to, their plants or distribution facilities,” says Colonna.

Those days may be some time off. “I think we will see a slow, steady build up of irradiated products on the market,” says Barach. “First of all, there are not that many facilities in operation right now to provide the service. Second, I think there are some processors who will choose to continue with their traditional processing methods. There is some division in the industry on this issue.”


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