ROSEMONT, Ill. (FNS) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects to issue regulations on the irradiation of red meat by early spring, while the Food and Drug Administration is developing regulations on packaging used for irradiated meat.
Daniel L. Engeljohn, chief of the standards development branch of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said at a recent seminar on irradiation here, sponsored by the American Meat Institute Foundation and the National Center for Food Safety Technology, that "we believe we will have regulations that require very little work" to reconcile with the FDA red-meat irradiation standard issued in December.
The two-day conference, the AMI's first since the FDA standard was issued, attracted about 150 people, primarily meat processors and suppliers of irradiation equipment and packaging materials, to hear presentations on the methods of irradiation and their effects on meats.
The USDA is working to make the red-meat regulations as consistent as possible with those issued for poultry, Engeljohn said. He noted earlier irradiation regulations specify minimum doses of radiation for pork and poultry, but that the newer USDA Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, which went into effect Jan. 26 for large processors and will be effective for smaller processors next January, leaves it to the processor to determine how to comply with HACCP requirements.
The USDA red-meat irradiation standard, therefore, will probably not set a minimum dose, he said. In addition, the earlier poultry and pork dose requirements may be revised to meet HACCP. The red-meat standard also may have different packaging requirements from the poultry standard, Engeljohn said, including permitting meat to be irradiated, then processed into another product.
"Poultry has to be irradiated in the package in which it is sold [to avoid recontamination]," he said. "In a HACCP environment, I'm not so sure that is the direction the agency wants to go. I would hope we do change that."
Patricia A. Hansen, head of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said that agency is now addressing the issue of packaging materials to be used for irradiated meats.
Packaging materials for prepackaged foods must be specifically listed for use during irradiation, she noted, and those approvals are usually given in response to a petition from a packaging manufacturer. Only a limited number of packaging materials are currently approved for use during irradiation.
Packaging materials may also be exempted from regulation under the FDA's Threshold of Regulation policy if it can be shown that low dietary exposure is expected. Packaging manufacturers must request that exemption and provide evidence to back up their position. The FDA, Hansen said, made its recommendation in December to allow irradiation of red meats after determining the process posed little risk.
Irradiation at the doses permitted does not affect the protein quality or mineral content of meat, nor does it compromise the nutritional quality, she said. The FDA particularly looked at the impact of irradiation on radiation-sensitive B vitamins, and determined the impact was not significant "in the context of the overall diet."
The agency also stated that drastically reducing the presence of certain microorganisms through irradiation would not create an environment that would encourage other potentially harmful pathogens to flourish.
The FDA requires that irradiated meat and other foods include a logo and one of two statements: "treated with radiation" or "treated by irradiation."
Hansen noted the USDA has primary authority over meat labeling, and Engeljohn encouraged the audience to give the department their opinions and proposals on labeling even before the regulations are proposed.
Irradiation equipment manufacturers estimated irradiating meat would add anywhere from 2 to 7 cents a pound to the cost of meat. There are two processes for producing the radiation -- gamma rays from cobalt 60 or X-rays from electron beam generators, and the costs estimates were about the same.
Most of the irradiation facilities now open are used for sterilizing medical supplies and would not be able to handle large volumes of meat, but one audience member suggested those facilities could process enough meat for preliminary market tests.
Spencer Stevens, president of APA, Inc., Omaha, Nebraska, an irradiation equipment company, indicated it would take 12 to 18 months to build a facility adjacent to a meat-processing plant, adding that, if the technology becomes popular, the lead time to get facilities on line may become longer.
Richard Lechowich, director of the National Center for Food Safety Technology, Summit-Argo, Ill., commented the industry is only in the first step -- government regulatory approval -- of a four-step process in getting irradiated meat on supermarket shelves. Consumer education to show the benefits "will take several years," he said.
How to actually do the irradiation while retaining the maximum quality of the meat also needs to be determined, and packaging issues must be addressed, he said, noting particularly a lack of packaging materials for irradiation using electron-beam technology. Lechowich added he favors irradiation of prepackaged product, as currently required for poultry, to avoid the possibility of recontamination.
Other technologies that have been suggested instead of irradiation to reduce pathogens in meat -- including spray-washing with ozone-impregnated water, acid washes and steam treatments -- should be considered "supplementary to irradiation" rather than a replacement for it, Lechowich said, since they will not kill as many pathogens.
John Masefield, chairman and chief executive officer of Isomedix,, Whippany, N.J., the company which petitioned the FDA to approve irradiation of meat, stressed that "irradiated products have been very much a part of our lives for many, many years." Along with medical supplies, many cosmetics, including soaps and shampoos, are sterilized using irradiation, and the process is used for foods in 40 countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. He also pointed out food irradiation has been endorsed by a number of major health and scientific organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association.