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Is Irradiated Meat Really Safe?

Japanese well-wishers hold paper lanterns while watching Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko on a screen outside the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo, Japan, as the couple make a public appearance during a special event celebrating the 20th anniversary of Akihito's coronation to the world's oldest throne, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009.
AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama
You may have seen irradiated meat as a new choice in some supermarkets and restaurants along with claims that the meat is safer because the radiation kills bacteria that can cause food poisoning.

Consumer Reports magazine put those claims to the test in its latest issue and found that bacteria levels were lower but still significant in the irradiated meat they tested.

On The Early Show Monday, managing editor Kim Kleman explains, "Irradiation is the process by which food is bombarded with high-frequency energy, capable of breaking chemical bonds. Irradiation works by damaging the DNA of bacteria that can make you sick."

Kleman notes, "It's not like your hamburger becomes radioactive, or you become radioactive. The question is, do you really need to buy it, in the supermarket or cafeteria or restaurant that happens to be selling it? That's what our tests were designed to answer."

Some 40 supermarket chains in this country already sell irradiated meat. Wal-Mart, the largest food retailer in the U.S., is testing sales in Northeast stores and may offer it nationwide. And there is a slight price difference.

Kleman says, "Price varied in our testing. We found it a little more expensive in some supermarkets, a little less in others where there was a promotional effort going on."

Like any meat, irradiated meat can become contaminated if it is handled improperly. That's why packages carry the same handling and cooking instructions as non-irradiated meat, including directions to "cook thoroughly." Trained taste testers also noted a slight but distinct off-taste and smell in most of the irradiated beef and chicken cooked and sampled. The difference was usually subtle, however, and some consumers may not notice it.

Kleman says, "The bottom line is that if you're a careful cook, you don't need to buy irradiated meat. Thorough cooking actually kills more bacteria than irradiation. But if you can't stay away from rare hamburgers, irradiated meat will lower your chances of getting sick. It won't eliminate the risk, but it does lower it."

She adds that some experts predict that, if used in institutions such as cafeterias, irradiated meat could help reduce widespread food-borne illness. That's worth knowing if you are among those, such as the immunocompromised, at greatest risk from food-borne illness or if you want an extra measure of safety.

Last year, producers recalled a record 57 million pounds of meat, including ground beef, poultry, and deli meats, because of potentially deadly bacterial contamination.

Kleman says, "Consumers unions think that a far more efficient way of solving the problem of food-borne illness is preventing contamination in the first place, by really focusing in on those things that are causing contamination."