What’s the beef with irradiated beef?

Irradiated beef deemed safe, favored by those who prefer rare hamburgers

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Food irradiation is designed to reduce the risk of foodborne illness and preserve food.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, like pasteurizing milk and canning fruits and vegetables, “irradiation can make food safer for the consumer.”

Robert Ralyea, a senior extension associate with Cornell University’s food science department, said he believes the technology is sound.

“People have been eating irradiated food for a long time and they probably don’t even know it,” said Ralyea.

The FDA is responsible for regulating the sources of radiation.

The agency states that only after it “has determined that irradiating the food is safe” is a source of radiation approved for use on foods.

The food that NASA astronauts eat has been sterilized by irradiation to avoid getting foodborne illness in space, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hamburg resident Jack Connors is convinced that irradiation is a plus when it comes to grilling a juicier burger.

“It gives a little more taste to it. You don’t have to burn it to enjoy it,” said Connors as he was selecting a package of burgers at Wegmans on McKinley Parkway.

Robert Gravani, a professor of food science at Cornell University, calls it a safe process that produces a good product.

“Yes, it is safe. The food, and I want to make this point very, very clear. The food is not and cannot become radioactive,” said Gravani. “The safety has been assured by many, many government agencies in the U.S. and around the world.”

The process involves exposing foods to radiant energy, like gamma rays, electron beams and x-rays.

The FDA states that irradiation can be used to “effectively eliminate organisms that cause foodborne illness, such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli (E. coli).”

“The one that’s used for ground beef is accelerated electrons,” added Gravani. “It destroys their DNA. It causes their cell membranes to leak and the bacteria die.”

The FDA states on its website that irradiation does not make foods radioactive, compromise nutritional quality, or noticeably change the taste, texture, or appearance of food.

The agency states: “In fact, any changes made by irradiation are so minimal that it is not easy to tell if a food has been irradiated.”

“I think that there are still a number of consumers out there who have an issue with the process,” added Gravani. “And I think like everything else once people understand what it is, how it works, and they understand a little bit more about the safety of it, and the science behind it, they’ll recognize that this is a safe and efficacious process.”

Wegmans, for example, makes all of its specialty burgers from irradiated ground beef.

“You’re targeting E.coli and salmonella,” said Kelly Schoeneck, vice president of meat and seafood merchandising for Wegmans. “So customers can enjoy a medium rare or rare burger and not have to worry about it.”

Schoeneck says the beef is ground at one plant and then sent to Sadex Corporation in Iowa where it’s irradiated.

“It’s an electronic beam. It’s like a big tunnel, and then it comes out and gets back on the trucks and ships to the stores,” she added.

Irradiation should not replace proper food-handling practices. Just think of it as an added layer of protection.

That’s precisely the way consumer Jack Connors sees it.

“If I usually cook a regular burger, I’ll cook it to pretty much well done. But this I don’t have to worry about cooking it as well done,” said Connors.

One in six Americans will become sick from foodborne illness every year. Often it’s because food hasn’t been cooked to the proper temperature.

Percy McDonald, the operator of McDonald Meats, a beef processing facility in Girard, Pennsylvania, believes it really comes down to preparation.

“If you cook your hamburger all the way through there’s no E.coli. It kills it,” said McDonald. “Even though you cooked it on the outside being that it’s ground it’s all mixed together.”

A variety of foods have been approved for irradiation in the U.S. The approved list includes beef and pork, lobster and shrimp, fresh fruits and vegetables, lettuce and spinach, poultry and spices and seasonings.

How will you know if food is irradiated?

The FDA has established regulations for labeling of irradiated foods.

Those labels must contain the words “Treated with Radiation” or “Treated by Irradiation” and display the irradiation logo, the Radura.

“That Radura has to be on foods that are irradiated so consumers know. And it’s got to be on the package that says treated by irradiation or treated with irradiation,” said Cornell University’s Robert Gravani.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, irradiated, whole foods sold in bulk, such as fruits and vegetables, also must display the label.

No label is required for food products that contain irradiated ingredients, such as spices, as long as the entire product has not been irradiated, according to the EPA.

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