The gamma factor.
Under the direction of George Sadler, a team at the Argo-Summit, 111.-based National Center for Food Safety and Technology has obtained FDA approval to use packaging materials approved for gamma irradiation in foods subjected to either electron-beam ("e-beam") or X-ray irradiation. This recognized "equivalency" between irradiation treatments bulldozes one of the last major regulatory obstacles to the widespread use of irradiation in foods, opening the door for the adoption of irradiation by meat processors to eradicate E. coli and Listeria microorganisms from pork and beef products. To date, irradiation is the only technology that has been shown to effectively destroy these microorganisms in beef patties and pork sausage.
"The original FDA petitions for acceptance of specific packaging materials in irradiation were based upon gamma irradiation," explains Sadler. However, the industry has been shifting its focus from gamma irradiation, which requires radioactive isotopes, to electron-beam irradiation. Unlike gamma irradiation, e-beam irradiation requires relatively little equipment and shielding, can be brought within close proximity to manufacturing lines and can be turned on and off as needed.
According to Sadler, packaging materials affected by the FDA's decision include polyolefins, polystyrenes, NYLON 6, cellophanes and EVA. Acrylonitrile, PVDC and PVC are approved under certain conditions. Still under investigation are EVOH, additional nylons, and anhydride-grafted polyethylenes--important for multilaminate packaging material construction.
Approval of the same packaging materials for X-ray processing portends an eventual industry shift from e-beams to X-rays, according to Sadler. While e-beam irradiation is more practical to apply to foods than gamma irradiation, it lacks the penetration power of gamma irradiation. Products processed by e-beam irradiation are apt to be products that can be conveyed in thin layers, slowing production rates. Development of a practical X-ray technology, however, will give processors the advantages of both e-beam and gamma irradiation.
"Given their deep-penetration potential, the eventual commercialization of practical X-ray units will allow meat processors to grade up from treating meat patties, one at a time, to being able to treat entire carcasses," predicts Sadler.
The NCFST is housed on the Moffet campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, a private, doctorate-granting university based in Chicago. The NCFST is the one place in the United States where scientists from the FDA, the food industry and academia work cooperatively to analyze, test and study new approaches for assuring and improving the safety of the food supply.
"The NCFST was working on irradiation when it seemed to be a dead issue," notes its executive director, Charles Sizer. "We always felt that this was a technology that had the potential to save lives. Although not every processor may opt to irradiate beef, consumers will now have a choice."
Stronger case builds for case-ready meats
Case-ready meats are gaining popularity among many of the larger stores--many of whom find the safety of such packages a solid interim answer to the protection provided by irradiation. Wal-Mart recently announced its expansion of case-ready meats to include all beef products in 180 supercenters and neighborhood markets in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Louisiana, Kansas and Texas. The company says it will also offer case-ready pork in supercenters by the end of the year.
Statements from Wal-Mart call the products the "freshest, highest-quality product available to consumers because the meat leaves the federally inspected plant in a sealed package that isn't opened until the customer takes it home."
The change will require a restructuring of the meat and deli departments.
"It's a very natural transition," say Pat Pines, vice president for education for the American Meat Institute. "It reduces costs at the store."
Pines adds that food safety increases with case-ready meats--especially with the fresh-meat counters because the product is handled less and the methodology allows greater inventory control.
"It is hard to keep the meat case stocked because of the shelf life of the meats," explains Pines. "This allows retailers to reduce the number of packages in each category."
She adds that although irradiation has been approved, the prevailing wind is that irradiated meats will first appear in the frozen ground beef section. In the meantime, case-ready is gaining supporters for the fresh meat case.