Big Money Push For Food
Irradiation Gathers Momentum
From Geri Guidetti

WASHINGTON ( -- Irradiation of food should become a national priority to reduce illness caused by dangerous microbes, despite some consumer skepticism, a top food industry executive and a leading health advocate said Tuesday.
Dr. David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, and ConAgra Inc. chief Bruce Rohde told an irradiation conference that consumers must overcome unfounded fears that the process might harm them.
"Not to do something at this point is to condemn us as a country to suffer the consequences of these foodborne illnesses again and again," said Kessler, now dean of the Yale University School of Medicine. "Food irradiation is a food safety tool that we as consumers should not ignore."
Rohde is one of the first major food executives willing to publicly outline plans to install irradiation in meat processing plants when the technology becomes feasible on a large scale.
"We're ready to make those investments," Rohde said in an interview. "The investment in food safety is a priority for us." His Omaha, Nebraska-based Fortune 500 conglomerate is among the top four beef packers and includes brands such as Butterball turkeys, Armour meats and Eckrich cold cuts.
Irradiation has been used for years on limited amounts of produce, spices and other foods.
However, last year's FDA approval of the process for red meat has sparked new interest as the food industry tries to tackle problems with bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter.
Those bacteria and others cause some 33 million gastrointestinal gastrointestinal illnesses and 9,000 deaths a year, although some researchers believe the true number could be far higher.
Most scientists agree that low-level doses of gamma ray or electron beam irradiation to kill bacteria are safe in food. But anti-nuclear groups have been vocally opposed, and some health advocates worry that use of irradiation might reduce other safety techniques such as proper handling and plant sanitation.
Threats of protest and worries about consumer views have prompted many large meat processors to take a wait-and-see attitude. Grocery chains say that attitude itself could slow consumer acceptance of products once they do reach the market.
"Retailers cannot carry the flag alone for food irradiation," said Mike Wright, chief executive officer of Supervalue Inc. of Minneapolis.
For that reason, ConAgra's unequivocal statements of support for irradiation and its potential marketing power could make a big difference -- just as its "Healthy Choice" line of foods helped lead the way in lowfat products.
"A number of consumers want that added layer of protection," Rohde said. "It's an option we would like to give to consumers."
Eventually, Kessler said, irradiation labels on food should mean the same thing to consumers as pasteurization in milk, another process that was viewed critically when first tried in the early part of this century.
If consumers are properly educated about irradiation, he said, "they will likely choose the packaging that displays the radura symbol giving them an extra feeling of safety."
Irradiation still has some government hurdles to overcome. The Agriculture Department this summer is expected to release proposed rules regarding its use in processing meat and poultry and on what labels should say. Final rules are expected by the end of the year.

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