CHICAGO -- Wegmans Food Markets is expanding its selection of fresh, irradiated ground beef to include patties, officials announced at a conference on irradiation, held in conjunction with the Food Marketing Institute's show here.
The patties, each one-third of a pound and sold in packages of four, join one- and three-pound chubs of fresh, irradiated ground beef introduced one year ago. Like the chubs, the patties will be marketed under Wegmans own name, the retailer told attendees at the First World Congress on Food Irradiation.
The two-day conference also included an appearance by Dr. Elsa Murano, Under Secretary for Food Safety with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as remarks by a food-service operator selling irradiated hamburgers and several processors of irradiated meat.
In providing a unique retail perspective, Wegmans was called upon to recount its foray into potential controversy when it brought in the fresh, irradiated products last year. Until that time, all irradiated ground beef was sold as boxed, frozen patties, and none was offered as a private label.
Mary Ellen Burris, senior vice president of consumer affairs for the 65-store retailer, said the chain has always enjoyed a reputation as a food-safety advocate that has helped build a bond of trust with customers.
"It was four years ago that we put what I call warning labels on our ground beef," said Burris. "We felt that even with all the precautions we were taking to assure safe ground beef, that we just couldn't guarantee that a bad bug would not be present."
Wegmans' "There's More to Cooking Ground Beef Than Meets the Eye" campaign grew to include informational labels on all ground beef products, extensive media coverage, lots of support from regulators, extensive employee education, lots of information at point-of-sale and effective merchandising of thermometers and T-sticks.
As a result, Wegmans reversed a downward trend in ground beef sales that had become influenced by the string of massive nationwide meat recalls affecting all supermarket retailers at the time. In fact, the retailer had been prepared to see sales drop more, given the focus on safety Wegmans was undertaking. The sales increase showed the chain that a straightforward approach to food safety, with accurate information and a no-spin presentation, was a way to build consumer confidence.
"The lessons we learned with that launch are irrelevant to the launch that we did with irradiated," she said.
For this unprecedented project, Wegmans called on health departments for input in every county Wegmans had a store. The retailer also sought out university experts and state and federal officials. From these interviews, Wegmans' cross-functional executive team charged with developing the fresh irradiated program wrote up key messages that were consistent and forthright.
In debuting the beef, Wegmans held three press conferences, pre-released information to the press and sampled product for weeks following the launch. Store associates underwent extensive training beforehand.
"Everything's exceeded our expectations," Burris said. "[Irradiated ground beef] is amounting at this point to about 15% of our ground beef sales."
Wegmans pegged 10% as an acceptable sales goal after the introduction, but Burris said some stores showed sales of the fresh, irradiated product topping an impressive 40%.
Earlier, Murano outlined three primary responsibilities the USDA has in protecting the food supply, noting that irradiation has the potential to play an important role.
The agency's mission is to bridge gaps between all points in the distribution pipeline, and among the myriad regulations already in effect; to craft science-based policies that improve risk analysis and policy-making itself; and to apply valid practices, in practical ways, to farm-to-table operations.
Irradiation is an option consumers should have, but it must be documented in ways consumers can understand -- whether on a label or in a brochure, Murano said.
"We must respect the consumer's right to choose what he or she wants to purchase. And that is why the labeling requirements are so important," she said. "At the same time it's important we educate the public so they can make informed decisions."
There are two goals in the educational efforts by FSIS. The first is to ensure that there is a universal understanding that irradiation cannot substitute for good sanitary procedures at the processor level. The second is that consumers need to understand that irradiation only reduces the chances of food contamination; it does not eliminate it.
"The process does not replace proper cooking or handling practices for producers, retailers or consumers," Murano said, noting that irradiation should be viewed only as one component in the larger food-safety formula.
To that end, the USDA is involved in the current directive to include irradiated ground beef as part of the National School Lunch Program. A pilot under way in Minnesota is examining the level of acceptance in select schools, where educational materials on the subject have been distributed and are being evaluated for effectiveness. The USDA, which administers the school lunch program, was ordered by Congress to begin including irradiated beef as part of the 2002 Farm Bill.
Similarly, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration are evaluating the effectiveness of irradiating other fresh foods, such as deli meats and hot dogs. The FDA is the lead agency on that initiative, and Murano said the USDA is awaiting a decision there before beginning its own tests.