If irradiation wins Food and Drug Administration approval for red meat, it will have hopped another of the hurdles it must overcome to become more of a player in the food-safety game -- but the logistics of widespread food irradiation may pose an even greater challenge.
The prospect of a large-scale move to irradiation certainly poses many questions. Where and when in the distribution channel should the food be irradiated? How should the product be labeled? What would the costs be, and who would pay? And how important would its future role in food safety become?
SN posed these questions and more to irradiation's proponents and detractors in the food industry, retail and consumer advocacy camps. [The basics -- how irradiation works, and what the arguments are for and against its adoption as a food-safety tactic -- were covered in last week's issue.]
Irradiation currently is being used infrequently to combat pathogens on other perishable products for which it is already approved, such as poultry, pork and fresh produce. That situation has led to a dearth of practical information on how to put the process into full-scale commercial use.
Since very few current irradiation facilities are exclusively dedicated to food, any move toward irradiating a large quantity of perishables would be charting new territory.
"I think initially it will be done at a manufacturing site and then at distribution points, or on the processing line after it has been packaged," said John Farquhar, vice president of scientific and technical services at the Food Marketing Institute, Washington.
"One scenario is meat and poultry plants would build irradiation facilities at the end of the production line," said Sara Lilygren, senior vice president of legislative and public affairs at the American Meat Institute, Washington. "That would be ideal because you could eliminate other places that [meat] could be contaminated."
Bill Roenigk, senior vice president of the National Broiler Council, Washington, concurred that on-site treatment at individual food-processing facilities would be the most efficient method for irradiation on a massive scale.
"In the long term, you'd have to build an irradiation system at 250 poultry slaughter plants. You'd have to have a facility at each," Roenigk suggested.
However, while large processors might be able to justify the cost of such on-site facilities -- which, in turn, would also lessen the risk of contamination through transport -- smaller companies might not have the means to build them, according to Craig Hedberg, an epidemiologist at the Minnesota State Department of Health, Minneapolis. For those operators who elect not to build on-site facilities, "there may be regional centers," proposed Hedberg.
Meanwhile, some representatives of consumer advocacy groups are expressing concern over the potential health risks that the construction and operation of such facilities could pose to the workers and their communities.
"The facilities themselves pose hazards and can cause radioactivity to be tracked outside," said Michael Colby, the executive director of Food & Water, a food-safety activist group based in Walden, Vt. "We would have to build dozens of nuclear reactors. What community is going to want them?"
What's more, said Colby, "Who is going to pay for all of these facilities?" He estimated they would cost $10 million apiece to build.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, also said she was concerned about worker safety and potential environmental risks to the communities in which such facilities would be built.
Even the NBC's Roenigk concurred that "most neighborhoods won't want [irradiation facilities]."
But such concerns are not justified, said irradiation proponents. Christine Bruhn, a scientist at the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, said that "having an irradiation facility in your community doesn't create an undue risk."
An alternative to building an infrastructure of new plants to irradiate a large quantity of products would be adapting the irradiation facilities that are currently in use for nonfood products.
"There are 40 irradiation facilities that do the majority of medical equipment. Those could be converted and modified to do both [food and medical equipment] at the same time," said Daniel Engeljohn, branch chief for standards development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service, Washington.
Engeljohn raised another issue: once irradiated meat and poultry hits the market, it has to be labeled, like irradiated produce, which in the market has a sticker or placards placed next to it.
The FMI's Farquhar also acknowledged the importance of the issue of labeling the irradiated fresh foods. "I think there are concerns about labeling the product and I think the consumer has a right to know. I don't think it should be a barrier if done properly."
Sarah Delea, vice president of communications at the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., stressed the importance of making sure that the labels had consumer-friendly themes.
Al Kober, the meat and seafood merchandising manager at Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., noted that an irradiation label, if properly presented, could even serve as an incentive to consumers, rather than something that detracts from the product's appeal.
"If we introduce it right, it's going to be value-added, which is what one producer is [already] doing with chicken," Kober said.
However, some industry sources expressed concern about possible negative consumer reaction to certain of the current specifications for labeling irradiated products.
The CSPI's DeWaal cautioned that, "the fact that the label could be the same size as that for the food ingredients [may give the impression] that they are trying to sneak it past consumers and I think it may result in a backlash."
However it is labeled, the price tag for irradiating products could be low, but the costs will depend heavily on how widespread use of the practice becomes, sources said.
"I have heard everything from less than a cent to 10 cents a pound," said the NBC's Roenigk. "A lot of that has to do with volume."
"The costs are going to be a function of how widely used it is," concurred the University of Minnesota's Hedberg. "If we irradiate all fresh food supplies it will cost pennies a pound."
"The cost is minimized if everyone cooperates and participates," said Clemens' Kober. " The cost would be justified by the benefits. That's why it needs to be introduced and supported by the government."
It may not be minimal for the seafood industry, however, according to Lee Weddig, executive vice president of the Washington-based National Fisheries Institute. "It could be costly because there would be a need to transport products to central locations. And the seafood industry is scattered, with smaller producers," he said.
"It's definitely not a cure-all for the produce industry," said Delea of United. It's not even applicable for all produce commodities. "It doesn't work for salads and isn't acceptable for a lot of raw precut items."
Leafy greens, for instance, do not withstand the process of irradiation well, according to Don Rayburn, president of Nation's Pride, the sales and marketing division of Food Technology, an irradiator in Mulberry, Fla.
The FSIS's Engeljohn said irradiated meat, at least, could be available on the marketplace "in a matter of weeks. Those facilities available for poultry could be used to irradiate meat."
The FMI's Farquhar thought the process of getting to market would take much longer. "To gear up for something like this will take a least a year. You have got to look at processing, labeling, packaging and marketing," he said.
Costs and logistics aside, the primary barrier to acceptance of irradiation continues to be consumer, and industry, resistance to the process, most sources agreed.
"One thing that is preventing [a more widespread use] of irradiation is a combination of industry and consumer wariness," confirmed the University of Minnesota's Hedberg.
"I don't think there's any question it'll get approved," commented Colby of Food & Water, "but I think the public will overwhelmingly reject it. Hopefully, the food industry will get the message."
"It has the connotation of being associated with the nuclear industry and people may choose not to consume those products because of that," said the FSIS's Engeljohn.
"I don't think a lot of retailers would be interested right away" even if irradiation is approved for use on red meat, said Jerry Vantreasi, a meat team leader at a Bread of Life store in Plantation, Fla. "I don't think the public, if they had all the facts, would be really interested in it.
"People are looking for moral and natural, rather than highly processed," Vantreasi said.
Roenigk of the NBC concurred that "consumer acceptance has been a big obstacle."
As the AMI's Lilygren sees it, "There's a lot of consumer misunderstanding."
Clemens' Kober said consumers have to be properly educated as to what irradiation is. "My main concern is that the meat industry has a proper education before the media gets hold of it and starts telling people what it isn't," he explained.
Once that is accomplished, the only other possible drawback to the process, according to Kober, would be if it's not properly done. "We really have got to get the industry educated," he said. "Now the government says irradiation of meat is an additive rather than a process. The first thing we have got to do is to get them to change the definition."
"The industry has to decide if people are willing to try something new for increased safety," said researcher Bruhn of the University of California. "I think it would take years, but in maybe 10 to 20 years we might have all products irradiated, considering [pasteurized] milk as a parallel."
The University of Minnesota's Hedberg agreed. "Once people see the product and its benefits, it will get widespread acceptance, much like pasteurized milk," he said.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen how far the market would take irradiation once the wheels of industry started turning. Opinions are mixed.
"Irradiation is just one technology that may be useful in certain circumstances, but I don't see it subject to widespread use in the future," said the CSPI's DeWaal.
"I don't know where it's going. On one side of the coin it could end up like pasteurization of milk; or, some other technology is going to come along," said Jim Corrigan, president of the single-unit Carrot Top operation in Glenview, Ill., a retailer who has carried irradiated products since 1992.
"I think it's an interesting technology that people will talk about, but other methods will supersede it and irradiation will become unnecessary," concluded the NBC's Roenigk.