“We feel very strongly that if we’re going to sell ground beef, it’s going to be irradiated because that’s the highest level of food safety that we can provide to our customers,” says Beth Weiss, public relations director at Omaha Steaks.
The steak company has been irradiating its ground beef since 2000, but currently the meat has to be sent on a five-day road trip to Florida to be irradiated at a separate facility. Using Rayfresh’s machine, on the other hand, will allow the process to be in-house.
Chris Schoch, the vice president of sales at Rayfresh, said the third-party testing MSU performs helps establish credibility for the technology. Schoch said irradiation is ideal for high-risk products such as ready-to-eat foods like bagged lettuce and raw nuts because there is currently no other kill step that’s as effective at wiping out bacteria.
Rayfresh has proven the x-ray process can cut pathogens like E. coli and salmonella from 100,000 microbes per product sample to one. “We have had success with complete sterilization,” says Schoch.
But irradiation is no silver bullet.
Instead, many said it should serve merely as an additional step to complement other food safety practices. “If you irradiate a product but then expose that product to other contamination risks, then irradiating the product was a waste of your time,” Marks says.
For example, irradiation probably would not have been able to prevent the recent salmonella outbreak in peanuts, where poor sanitary conditions and employee negligence were the culprits.
The public is still unsure about irradiated foods, despite the fact that some food products like spices have been irradiated since the 1900s. No radioactive substances remain in irradiated foods. Irradiation is a type of energy that disappears when the energy source is removed.
However, the public’s uneasiness could change as more foodborne illness outbreaks occur.
“After a foodborne illness outbreak, if people hear irradiation will increase safety, the majority are interested in trying irradiated food,” says Dr. Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis.
Bruhn said health authorities need to take a more active role in advising the public that they can choose irradiated ground beef, poultry, spinach and lettuce and that supermarkets should offer them at reasonable prices.
The Organic Consumers Association disagrees, claiming that irradiated foods only appear fresh and contain fewer vitamins than non-treated foods.
Many food processors believe that irradiation is not the only answer to eliminating pathogens.
Organic producers such as Earthbound Farm are not allowed to use irradiation under the National Organics Program standards.