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Irridated Meat

Air Date: Week of

The US government has begun to allow meat producers to use radiation treatments to rid meat of potentially harmful pathogens. Critics complain that the meat-packing industry should focus instead on controlling the causes of contamination. Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports.


CURWOOD: Food-borne illnesses kill about 5,000 people in the U.S. each year and sicken thousands more. E-coli and salmonella are the names of the most notorious pathogens. The federal government has recently approved a debatable way to eradicate those microorganisms in meat. The process is called irradiation, and proponents say it will ensure a much safer food supply. Critics, though, are worried that this high-tech solution may lead to other problems. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports.

TOOMEY: Scientists say irradiated food does not become radioactive. The process, they say, is akin to pasteurizing milk. You end up with a safer product, especially for those with weak immune systems like the elderly and children. Researcher Dennis Olsen.

OLSEN: I would be a little hesitant myself to not buy irradiated ground beef that I'm going to serve to young children because in the event that it gets a little undercooked, we don't have to worry about whether that product can be dangerous to those children.

TOOMEY: Mr. Olsen works at ground zero, so to speak, of irradiation science: Iowa State University. He's been studying different ways to disinfect meat with radiation. One technique uses a linear particle accelerator to zap meat with a stream of high-energy electrons. Another exposes the meat to the gamma rays emitted by a piece of radioactive cobalt. Either way, Mr. Olsen explains, the result is the same: Any bacteria, parasite, or insect on the food gets its DNA dismantled.

OLSEN: DNA is kind of unique in that a few chemical breaks in DNA causes that to be non-functional. And so, in fact, things that are living that are exposed to this high energy are destroyed. And so that's how we basically kill bacteria without really causing any other significant changes in the food product.

TOOMEY: Its taste and vitamin content, Mr. Olsen says, remain virtually the same as non-treated meat. Actually, irradiation is nothing new. It's been done on fruits and vegetables since 1986. And for the past seven years a small percentage of poultry producers have tried it. Now, with scares of tainted food routinely in the news, beef and pork producers have won government approval to use the technique as well. Mr. Olsen thinks it's a big step in improving public health.

OLSEN: We need to see it being implemented so that we have fewer hospitalizations. I mean, it's kind of a shame that we have a technology that can in fact significantly reduce illnesses and that we're not using it.

TOOMEY: Some ardent food safety activists claim this process hasn't been proven to be safe. But the watchdog group, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, gives irradiation its qualified approval. The group's director of food safety, Carolyn Smith DeWaal, fears some companies will use irradiation to avoid cleaning up the meat packing process in the first place.

DE WAAL: Irradiation is really an end-of-the-line solution to sanitation problems that could be cleaned up earlier in the process. So we want to make sure that the meat industry is using steps all the way from the farm to the table to make sure their meat is safe, and not just relying on a single step like irradiation to clean up problems that should be really cleaned up much earlier.

TOOMEY: Whatever their motivation for irradiating, the meat packing industry won't be flooding local supermarkets with treated meats. Only four facilities in the country have government approval for the process, with two more in the pipeline. But you will be able to tell if your pork chops or roast beef have been treated. They'll have to display a special symbol: flower petals surrounded by a green broken circle, along with a statement explaining the meat has been irradiated. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.



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