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Consumer Reports Conducts Test to Bring the Truth about Irradiated Meat

July 8, 2003
Joan Eve Quinn (914) 378-2436 or
Lauren Hackett (914) 378-2561

— Unbiased research takes meat retailers’ marketing claims to task —

YONKERS, NY – Consumer Reports (CR) bought more than 500 packages of meat in 60 cities for the largest retail test of its kind to check claims made by meat retailers about irradiated meats. A major finding of this study in the August issue: There is no reason to buy irradiated meat if you cook meat thoroughly because irradiation actually destroys fewer bacteria than proper cooking does. However, an advantage of irradiated meat is that it generally has lower bacteria levels than regular meat. Therefore, it may reduce-but not eliminate-the risk of foodborne illness if your meat is undercooked.
Last year producers recalled a record 57 million pounds of meat because of potentially deadly bacterial contamination. As a result, the government is paying more attention to irradiation to improve meat safety because the kinds of organisms irradiation targets are the nation’s biggest food health threat. The government is considering approval of irradiation for some seafood and ready-to-eat foods, and it recently gave school districts the option of ordering irradiated beef for its school lunch program. Irradiated food is safe to eat, according to health officials, and it certainly does not become radioactive. But it has fueled a debate over how best to improve meat safety: by more aggressively preventing contamination in the first place, irradiating possible contaminants in package meats, or some combination of both.
Kim Kleman, Managing Editor of Consumer Reports, said, “In the aftermath of record meat recalls, many supermarkets are stepping up their efforts to market irradiated meat, so we have put their advertising claims to the test to provide our readers with impartial advice and recommendations. We also let consumers know what they can do to handle and cook meat properly to protect their families and help avoid meat contamination in the home.”
As retailers step up marketing campaigns to sell irradiated meats, and the debate about irradiation continues, CR presents unbiased research, a microbial analysis of irradiated and nonirradiated chicken and ground beef, independent taste tests, and recommendations. Some main points of this report include:
· Bacteria levels in the irradiated, uncooked ground beef and skinless chicken tenders were generally much lower than levels in the nonirradiated meat. But the irradiated meat still contained some bacteria. Like any meat, irradiated meat can become contaminated if handled improperly, and it comes with the same handling and cooking instructions as regular meat. So there is no real benefit for the careful cook.
· CR’s trained testers noted a slight but distinct off-taste and smell (like singed hair) in most of the irradiated beef and chicken cooked and sampled, but because the off-tastes are subtle some consumers may not notice.
· Irradiation may offer added protection if meat is undercooked. Used in institutions such as cafeterias, irradiated meat could help reduce widespread foodborne illness, some experts predict.
· Other experts worry that the way irradiation is being promoted gives consumers a false sense of security. They say this end-stage fix also takes the focus off preventing contamination in the first place.
· A recent study on the chemical byproducts that irradiation creates in meats has led some researchers and the European Parliament to call for further studies.
· Clearly, much more can be done to clean up unsanitary conditions where meat is processed and served. Consumers Union, the independent, non-profit publisher of CR, believes that the best way to improve meat quality is to clean up the food supply chain and strengthen USDA authority over meat safety.
Irradiation is the process by which food is bombarded with high-frequency energy capable of breaking chemical bonds. The typical irradiation dose for meat is 15 million times the energy involved in a single chest X-ray or 150 times the dose capable of killing an adult. Irradiation works by damaging the DNA of disease-causing bacteria such as salmonella and potentially deadly E. coli, which become inactive because they can’t reproduce.
A study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases estimated that irradiating half of all ground beef, poultry, pork and processed meat would prevent 900,000 cases of foodborne infection, 8,500 hospital admissions, 6,000 grave illnesses, and 350 deaths in the US each year. Such reductions would amount to 6 percent of foodborne illnesses reported each year. By contrast, the Center for Disease Control says 20 percent of such outbreaks are caused simply by commercial food preparers’ poor hygiene.
Schools reported roughly 24 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses each year between 1973 and 1997, according to research reported in the Pediatrics Infectious Disease Journal. During that time 50,000 students were sickened, 1,500 were hospitalized, and 1 child died. The problem is that food safety is not being adequately addressed: Only one-third of some 80 school food-service directors surveyed by the American School Food Service Association said they have programs that detail where contamination might occur and provide systems to prevent it.
The government allows certain foods to be irradiated, including spices, fruits, vegetables, pork, poultry, beef, and fresh eggs. The labeling is also a subject of debate: Currently, packages of irradiated meat must be marked with the “radura” symbol and with words such as “treated with irradiation.”
For the report, click here.
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