MINNEAPOLIS -- Retailers selling a brand of irradiated beef patties called accusations of price gouging inaccurate and unfair, after a Washington-based consumer-advocacy group conducted spot checks among stores and issued a press release charging the stores with predatory pricing.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest cited Cub Foods, Lund Food Holdings and Rainbow Foods -- all Minneapolis-area based operators -- for charging shoppers "outrageous" prices for their newly stocked irradiated frozen ground-beef patties. The group reported a 100% premium increase in some stores.
The retailers involved, as well as the manufacturer of the beef patties in question, Huisken Meats, Chandler, Minn., said the CSPI's report is faulty, and is the result of unfair and inaccurate research and comparison.
"The whole thing is bordering on the ridiculous," said Cliff Albertson, beef-patty sales manager for Huisken. "We've been in contact with some of the retailers concerning the accusations and they find it as laughable as we do."
The CSPI statement claimed that Lund Food Holdings, which operates stores under the Lunds and Byerly's banners, was charging $2.20 per pound for regular beef patties and $2.65 per pound for irradiated patties, while Cub Foods priced regular patties at $1.75 per pound and irradiated beef at $2.50 per pound.
Retailers who spoke with SN claimed that the so-called "outrageous" prices of irradiated beef patties manufactured by Huisken were compared with regular beef patties from other manufacturers, creating an inaccurate result.
"The problem with their findings is that they're comparing apples to oranges," said Michelle Croteau, public relations manager for Lund Food Holdings. "Comparing products from two different manufacturers is not going to produce a fair result, and that's exactly what they did."
According to Croteau, Lunds does not carry any Huisken's beef products other than its electronically pasteurized beef patties, therefore making the price comparisons to other patties in Lunds stores unfair.
"As far as using different products in our survey, very simply, we compared irradiated beef prices to that of non-irradiated beef," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI.
In its report, the CSPI said the meat industry has long contended that irradiated ground beef would only cost about five cents more per pound once it hit retail shelves, yet the organization claimed that a Cub Foods location on University Avenue was found to be charging $1.50 more per pound than it does for standard beef patties.
According to Jacobson, that increase was detected a week before the CSPI's statement was issued, and was reduced afterward.
"We can not figure out where in the world they got these numbers," said Rita Simmer, spokeswoman for Cub Foods. "It's just not true." Albertson questioned the integrity of the price comparisons as well, alleging that the CSPI used Memorial Day sale prices on regular beef patties as the base cost against that of the irradiated beef in some stores, an assertion Jacobson denied.
The retailers and manufacturer all agreed that higher prices on new products are sometimes part of a rollout, particularly those involving high-tech processing.
"It is only natural that prices for irradiated meat be slightly higher during this introductory period, seeing as how the process is several steps more involved," said Albertson of Huisken. "But once consumer acceptance begins to increase, the process can be consolidated and cost reduced."
The CSPI claimed that, on average, Cub charged anywhere between 10 cents and 75 cents extra per pound at different stores and was "testing" to see how much it could charge customers, going as high as the $1.50 increase per pound at the University Avenue location.
A telephone survey conducted by the CSPI allegedly found that Byerly's, Lunds and Rainbow priced irradiated beef somewhere about 40 cents higher than their traditional stock, a price which Croteau confirmed Lunds was charging at the moment.
"Still, I wouldn't call 40 cents 'price gouging,"' she said. "With a new product, prices tend to be a bit higher at first, but they'll go down."
Albertson compared the current prices of irradiated meat to the arrival of water-packed tuna on the retail scene during a time when oil-packed tuna was the consumer favorite.
"Once shoppers accepted it and found it to be a quality product that was safe, the cost of manufacturing it went down and that brought the retail price -- which had been higher than regular tuna -- down too," he said. "I have a feeling the same thing will happen with irradiated foods soon enough."
Along with the higher prices, the CSPI also contended in its report that the treated meat had the highest fat content found in the store, at 25%, making the current price hikes that much more unfounded.
"Most frozen beef patties are in the 75% lean area," noted Huisken's Albertson. "Twenty-five percent fat is pretty normal for such a product, so [CSPI] is just looking for something else to throw in there."
Huisken uses an electronic-pasteurization method in producing its meat patties, using one of three forms of irradiation approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to destroy bacteria such as E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes and salmonella. While no radiation is involved in this particular process, the packages are still required to display the term "irradiated."
The CSPI has long been an advocate of more conventional methods of protecting food safety, through the use of chemical rinses, improved hygiene or steam pasteurization. Officials have expressed reservations about the electronic pasteurization used by Huisken, stating it should only be used if other methods are insufficient.
"Irradiated foods may be most beneficial to the most vulnerable individuals," said Jacobson. "Unfortunately, high prices may put safe food out of reach for low-income consumers."