Despite the availability of irradiated frozen ground beef products on the market, retailers remain hard pressed sourcing fresh ground items -- part of the continuing fallout from January's sudden demise of SureBeam Corp., the industry's primary irradiator of food.
"We have not found a supplier [for fresh irradiated ground beef products]," said Jamie Miller, spokesman for Giant Food, Landover, Md., one chain impacted by the SureBeam facility closure. "However, we are still in the process of looking for one."
Jeanne Colleluori, communications specialist for Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., reported similar sentiments when called by SN. "We are continuing to look at alternative suppliers. There have been no decisions made yet, but we remain committed to irradiation and irradiated products. We continue to meet with providers."
Industry observers say that part of the problem is that supermarkets are partial to the electron beam process that was used at SureBeam's plant in Sioux City, Iowa, as opposed to the gamma radiation technique that uses cobalt-60 -- the system employed by facilities currently open for processing.
Industry proponents argue the process should not matter -- both eradicate deadly E. coli 0157:H7 from hamburger meat. Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council, Bloomington, Minn., and a keen supporter of the technology, said there are options available today, since frozen ground beef and poultry are still on the shelves.
"How many children have to get seriously ill with foodborne illness?" he asked. "This technology can save lives. We need to put a stoplight at the railroad tracks before somebody gets injured. Irradiation is the only tool we have that provides the level of assurance that we need."
Retailers appear to be waiting for the sale of the SureBeam irradiation plant -- and hoping the new owners re-activate the electron beam system they prefer.
"Retailers are waiting for the SureBeam situation to shake out," noted Paul Moriarty, director of market development, CFC Logistics, a food irradiator in Quakertown, Pa. "If someone picks up the facility [and makes it operational again], a lot will fall in line. If not, I hope retailers come to us."
However, the possibility remains that the Sioux City plant could be shifted to industrial production, rather than food or food ingredient production. Any new owners would have to gauge the enthusiasm of retailers, who continue to seek alternative irradiation processors.
"There are opportunities for irradiation companies to provide services and there is significant interest at retail," Eustice said. "Hopefully, the SureBeam facility will be purchased and back in operation soon or those retailers will find other irradiation outlets."
The level of interest might surprise those people outside the supermarket business, given that irradiated beef products comprise an estimated 2% or less of total ground beef available at retail. Eustice believes that more than 3,000 retail outlets have offered irradiated ground beef products.
"We aren't quite sure what happened, even now," said Mary Ellen Burris, spokeswoman for Wegmans, discussing the SureBeam Chapter 7 liquidation in an announcement to customers. "We think that it was insufficient funding due to premature expansion. This was very bad news, because this was the only company in the U.S. that irradiated fresh ground beef using the electron beam process."
Wegmans, like other retailers, has been unable to offer fresh product to customers since early February when supplies ran out. At that time, Wegmans posted signs in the meat case and mailed postcards to customers who had purchased the irradiated ground beef.
"We wanted to explain why they could no longer find the products our customers had come to expect," recalled Colleluori. Those same consumers will be notified again once the company finds a new source for fresh irradiated ground beef.
"We have had numerous customer calls," said Colleluori. "They are anxious for us to get the product back into the stores. We even have customers calling with suggestions of where we could look for the products, after they have done their own research. They want to help us get through this unexpected circumstance and we want to help them get the products they want."
Wegmans' success with this niche fresh category rested in company executives' ability to position the product, said Colleluori. Indeed, it was a private-label item, and so, required special handling. The company mounted an aggressive educational program when the irradiated items were introduced. The program took a two-pronged approach aimed at customers and employees.
"We made sure there was a lot of information available," she said. "We talked about the process and what we hoped the product would accomplish. Plus, we wanted customers to know what they could expect."
To further quell customer concerns, Wegmans scheduled in-store sampling over several months. "We wanted customers to try the product rather than paying for something they had no experience with."
Wegmans' strategy was to market the product as a value-added item, observed Eustice.
"They were proactive and proud to offer it. They didn't just put it in the case and take a 'see how it goes' position, and that was key to their success. Sure, it's a marketing opportunity, but they put resources behind it to make it happen."
"We had great success because of how we merchandised the items," agreed Colleluori. "We didn't hide the product in the stores; it was put in front. We shouted about it. All of our efforts combined to help the customer understand the irradiated products."
Irradiated ground beef has been available since December 1999, as part of a federal government initiative to reduce the amount of beef contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7.
Which Ray Do They Go?
Irradiation providers remain in operation. The processes, however, do differ from that of shuttered SureBeam Corp.'s Sioux City, Iowa, plant.
While SureBeam processed fresh and frozen ground beef using electron beams, other companies process products using cobalt radioactivity. Gamma radiation produces the same kind of results as the electronic beam method, though retailers seem to prefer the latter.
Omaha Steaks, Omaha, Neb., was one mail-order beef purveyor using SureBeam's services for its entire ground beef line. Industry insiders report that they have since shifted to Food Technology Services, Mulberry, Fla.
Food Technology Services employs gamma radiation produced by cobalt-60, as does CFC Logistics, Milford, Pa.. CFC Logistics is a division of Clemens Family Corp., the holding company that owns Hatfield, Pa.-based Hatfield Quality Meats.
CFC Logistics is a relatively new player in the irradiation field, using cobalt-60 as the source of its irradiation. In February, the company won federal approval to irradiate ground beef and poultry at its 50,000-square-foot cold storage warehouse, following a site inspection and approval of the company's food-safety plan.
"Major chains are testing our process," said Paul Moriarty, CFC's director of market development. "We have done samples. We have irradiated truckloads." One of the beef companies employing CFC Logistics sells to the federal school lunch program.
In a statement, CFC Logistics President Jim Wood said, "Gamma irradiation penetrates foods thoroughly and evenly, and our customers are telling us that the results are as good, if not better than, electron beam."