Good news arrived last week when, in a long-overdue action, the Food and Drug Administration approved the irradiation of red meat.
In actuality, though, the FDA's authorization of irradiation for more products represents no more than the first step toward the full-scale rollout of meat irradiation, assuming, as I do, that such is the desired end.
Nothing can happen for a while since the Food Safety and Inspection Service must now issue guidelines governing how irradiation is to be accomplished. That process will last until well into next year. Incidentally, the irradiation of pork, poultry, spices, produce and a few other products has been authorized, but little used, for some time. (For more on irradiation's approval, see Page 1. SN also published a two-part series about irradiation Oct. 27 and Nov. 3.)
Should irradiation become a standard part of red-meat production, it might evolve something like this: The process would become the final step in a centralized meat-fabrication scenario, involving the exposure of bulk lots or individual packages of product to an isotope that would bombard the product with irradiation, killing bacteria by unhinging its DNA.
The resulting benefit to the industry is quite evident: The industry would inherit an extra 10 days or so of product life. That time could be well employed by making the central fabrication of meat in consumer packages much more feasible than it is now. That's especially true because new packaging technology just now becoming available would also extend the freshness life of meat in consumer packages.
Removing the process of meat packaging from stores' back rooms in favor of central preparation would mark the sad end of a long industry tradition, but it's increasingly clear the era will end in any event. The benefit of central preparation is vast in terms of food safety and systemic efficiency. Indeed, it's likely efficiencies made possible by the added freshness life of product would make it possible to actually reduce retail price points -- notwithstanding the fact irradiation and packaging innovations would add several cents per pound to the price of meat.
The big fly buzzing in the ointment is that there is much consumer reticence about irradiation. That's to be expected since the very word conjures up images of nuclear waste and destruction. The anti-irradiation fires are certain to be fanned by the numerous and vociferous interest groups in the business of doing so. Meanwhile, trade groups favorably disposed toward irradiation will be obliged to remain relatively quiet for fear of being criticized for espousing what could be interpreted as an anticonsumer position, or for fear of exacerbating the situation. Meat packers will be rendered mute for the same reasons. Does this mean irradiation technology is doomed, especially in light of the fact that poultry processors have been obliged to be so timid about irradiation? Probably not. Poultry is a branded product and no brand owner wants to erode equity by being the first to sprout the imprint "irradiated" on consumer packages. Beef tends to be nonbranded, so it's likely that cost savings fostered by the process will gradually induce trial. As for consumer diffidence, it may be the noise of interest groups amplifies its reality and the appeal of irradiation as an added safety element will lower the volume sooner than anyone might anticipate at the moment.
In any case, it's a sure bet the road leading to the common usage of this newly authorized technology will be a very long one. But it's a trip well worth taking.