December 13, 1999 - The U.S. Agriculture Department on Friday approved irradiation of red meat as a way to curb food-borne illnesses, offering the industry another way to improve food safety.
"When it comes to food safety, there is no silver bullet," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said. "Used in conjunction with other science-based prevention efforts, irradiation can provide consumers with an added measure of protection."
Glickman made the announcement while speaking before a meeting of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Under USDA's proposed rule, radiation would be permitted for treatment of refrigerated or frozen uncooked meat and some meat products. It would not, however, require plants to use irradiation.
Irradiation is currently the only known method to eliminate completely a potentially deadly strain of E. coli bacteria in raw meat. The technology can also significantly reduce levels of listeria, salmonella and campylobacter bacteria on raw products, officials said.
Industry groups hailed the announcement as a new frontier for the food safety movement.
"We've more or less hit a technological wall in terms of how much further we can squeeze food safety," said Dane Bernard, vice president of food safety programs for the National Food Processors Association. "This will open the door to the next level."
Added Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, "In the simplest of terms, food irradiation will save lives."
Irradiation has been used for years on limited amounts of produce, spices, poultry and other foods. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the process for red meat, sparking renewed debate over the procedure.
During irradiation, low-level doses of gamma rays or electron beam irradiation are administered to kill bacteria. Scientists agree the process is safe in food. On the recent space mission, John Glenn and his fellow astronauts ate irradiated food.
Still, anti-nuclear groups have been vocally opposed to the procedure and some health advocates worry that using irradiation might reduce other safety techniques such as proper handling and plant sanitation.
Written By Janelle Carter, AP Farm Writer