On the heels of another massive nationwide recall of meat products tainted with foodborne bacteria, a chain of grocery stores in the Midwest has announced that it will offer customers the option of purchasing regularly irradiated ground beef. Other stores will inevitably follow suit, if consumers show interest.
John A. (Sean) Fox, associate professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, has conducted numerous studies to determine how much consumers are willing to pay for safe food. His other research interests include consumer response to irradiated meat, and food from animals injected with somatotropin. He said consumers -- armed with the true facts about the process -- are ready to purchase the irradiated meat because of the overall safety of the product.
"I think consumers are ready for it but they need to be educated about the process," Fox said. "It's unfortunate because simply with the word 'irradiation' it is very easy for opponents to scare consumers away from the process, just because of the negative connotations associated with irradiation. But again, when consumers have been informed and they know the facts, a majority of them are expressing a preference for the irradiated product. If that holds true, we will see a lot more irradiated ground beef in the stores in the upcoming months or years."
Fox said surveys indicate when consumers have been provided with information about irradiation, a strong majority of about 70-80 percent favor the process.
According to Fox, irradiation eliminates 99.9 percent of the pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria without changing the taste, texture, appearance or nutritional value of the meat. In spite of its name, the process cannot make food radioactive.
Two methods are currently approved for irradiating meat. One involves exposing the product to a beam of electrons that destroy the bacteria, while the second involves exposing the product to radioactive cobalt, which emits gamma rays that penetrate the product in the same manner an X-ray would, to kill pathogens.
While stores are currently offering consumers a choice between ground beef processed by the traditional method or irradiated ground beef, Fox envisions a point where just irradiated meats are the norm rather than the exception.
"It think we will get to the point where it's essentially all irradiated products," Fox said. "If you look at milk, it's very difficult to find unpasteurized milk in the store. I think certainly 20 years from now we will look back at the fact that we were consuming non-irradiated ground beef and being somewhat amazed that we were doing that."
Unfortunately, Fox said, the process is not free and adds approximately 6 to 10 cents per pound to the processing cost. That additional cost will ultimately be passed on to consumers. But he believes consumers will be willing to pay extra for a safer product. Ultimately, Fox said the pace at which we see the share of irradiated beef growing in the market will depend on consumer demand.
Although irradiation adds an extra layer of defense against foodborne pathogens, Fox cautions that appropriate food handling techniques should still be followed.
"It's important to realize that the product will spoil," Fox said. "It is not sterile and should be handled in exactly the same way you would a regular product."