Consumers will decide


Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 30, 2002 at 10:38 p.m.
Publix Super Markets Inc. announced in mid-September that the company would begin selling irradiated meat shortly after the beginning of next year. It's a big step for the Florida grocery chain, one that several others have already made.
Publix made its announcement in a press release.
Other chains have usually put irradiated meat products on their shelves without fanfare in order to avoid protests from irradiation opponents.
Winn-Dixie Stores, based in Jacksonville, said at the time that Publix made its announcement that Winn-Dixie's 1,000-plus stores spread across 12 states had been selling irradiated frozen-beef patties for about a year.
While Winn-Dixie quietly introduced the product, the Huskienbrand packages are labeled with the federally required irradiation symbol with a notice that the food had been irradiated.
Irradiation provides a longer storage life for poultry and meat by killing bacteria.
It also kills E. coli bacteria found in raw meat. The discovery of the bacteria triggered a nationwide recall of 25 million pounds of raw meat in the summer of 1997.
That was also the impetus for moving the Food and Drug Administration to action that same winter.
For more than three years, the FDA had been considering a petition from a company that wanted to expand its medical-irradiation business to include the irradiation of meat.
In December 1997, the FDA approved the petition.
Two companies in the United States operate irradiation facilities, including one in the Florida city of Mulberry.
Meat and poultry are the latest items added to a growing list of foods that can be irradiated, a process first approved in 1963 by the FDA as a method to protect wheat and flour from bugs. The next year, it was approved as a treatment to delay sprouting in potatoes.
U.S. astronauts have eaten irradiated food since 1972, and the process has been used on meat in other countries for decades.
Mickey Clerc, Winn-Dixie spokesman, told the Orlando Sentinel, that irradiated food "is not a big item in terms of sales, but it gives the customer a choice."
He added that whether irradiated meat products continue to be sold "all depends on consumer demand."
That's how the decision should be made. For years, opponents managed to keep irradiated meat out of freezers and meat cases by pressuring the FDA and supermarket executives.
John A. "Sean" Fox, associate professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, who has studied extensively consumers' response to irradiated meat, released a report recently showing "consumers are ready for it, but they need to be educated about the process."
Fox said that because the word "irradiation" is involved, "it is very easy for opponents to scare consumers away from the process, just because of the negative connotations associated with irradiation. But, again, when consumers have been informed and they know the facts, a majority of them are expressing a preference for the irradiated product. If that holds true, we will see a lot more irradiated ground beef in the stores in the upcoming months or years."
He said that although the process adds an additional 6 cents to 10 cents a pound to the cost of meat, consumers are willing to pay it for the additional protection and longer storage life.
The American Council on Science and Health notes that irradiation "has been studied more extensively than any other food preservation process, including canning, freezing, dehydration and chemical additives."
FDA officials said food irradiation is approved for use in more than 40 countries and recognized as safe by the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association.
But the FDA also notes that it is "not a substitute for comprehensive food-safety programs throughout the food-distribution system. Nor is irradiation a substitute for good food-handling practices in the home."
It should only be another layer of protection in food processing.
The decision of whether it is an acceptable one should be determined by consumers.

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