Three years ago, when the Minnesota public health director called up Ron Eustice to ask for help, irradiation was unknown to consumers. This winter, ground beef sanitized by irradiation is sold in 4,408 supermarkets across the country under 22 different corporate owners.
"It's taking hold faster than I ever dreamed," Eustice said last week as he flipped irradiated burgers and talked about the technology during the National Cattlemen's Beef Association trade show in Nashville.
"I have no doubt that by 2010 the majority of ground beef will be irradiated."
Eustice is executive director of Minnesota Beef Council. State government supports irradiation as a way to reduce foodborne illness.
The technology is expensive - a typical ground beef plant unit costs from $2 million to $4 million installed. But if used within specifications, the electron bombardment kills just about every foodborne pathogen scientists have identified.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, overseer of the nation's food labels, will approve an irradiation claim if the dose is administered by X-ray, exposure to a radio isotope, or with an electronic beam. Most interest is in electronic beam technology. Two weeks ago FDA published official guidance for how to file for approval of irradiation labels.
The push for food safety at the federal level resulted in a $742 million request for inspectors and laboratory services in the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget for the fiscal year starting October 2003. But USDA Secretary Ann Veneman, under questioning during an appearance at the convention, said the government isn't about to mandate the still-controversial process.
"It's a very, very promising technology that shows tremendous benefits, but it requires consumer acceptance," she said.
USDA has its own irradiation fracas this winter after proposing a school lunch zapped-burger specification. That drew a contrary view in a New York Times opinion page, suggesting USDA wants to force your kid to eat an irradiated burger, like it or not.
The people at NCBA, who promote beef, invested national beef checkoff money in technical testing of irradiation equipment and in initial consumer surveys. But they have decided it's up to the food industry to work out consumer acceptance.
In fact, that's what's happening.
Sure Beam, an electron beam manufacturer, became partners with Eustice and his Minnesota Beef Council in publicizing the technology in the upper Midwest.
As more stores and food suppliers got into irradiated ground beef last year, Sure Beam broadened the Minnesota contract, sending Eustice and his assistant, Michelle Torno, on the road. They made presentations in 20 states.
Two national food distributors, Schwan's Foods and Omaha Steaks, sell zapped burgers. Sysco, the giant food service company, sells irradiated ground beef in selected markets. Dairy Queen is running a pilot program in Minnesota restaurants.