SureBeam's new Iowa plant stands ready to deliver a final pathogen kill step for commercially sold beef.

Master-packed product is electronically monitored when being fed into SureBeam's irradiation chamber to ensure proper radiation dosages. (Photo: George Lindblade)

Two 24-inch wide conveyors feed product into the radiation chamber. Robotic depalletizing equipment will cut the processing time for 40,000 lbs. of meat to about an hour. (Photo: George Lindblade)
The banks of the Missouri and Big Sioux rivers in northwestern Iowa are dotted with casinos, and a year ago Titan Corp. plopped down a $10 million wager of its own that area meat processors would add irradiation to their food-safety protocol to eliminate any E. coli, Salmonella and other pathogens from products.

The wager represents Titan's investment in SureBeam Inc.'s Sioux City, Ia., irradiation plant, the nation's first dedicated facility to use electron beams to pasteurize meat and other foods. The first e-beam irradiated beef hit stores in May when Chandler, Minn.-based Huisken Meats debuted pasteurized patties in Minneapolis-St. Paul supermarkets. By summer, IBP Inc. was conducting market tests of similarly treated beef.

Public acceptance of irradiated beef, pork and chicken will dictate how rapidly SureBeam will increase weekly volume of about 320,000 lbs. of product through its Sioux City plant, but early indications have encouraged the Titan subsidiary to

plot an aggressive expansion. A second plant dedicated to fruit treatment opened in Hawaii in July, and August groundbreaking was scheduled for a Russellville, Ark., poultry treatment center. A major SureBeam client is expected to announce the first in-line installation of an irradiation unit at one of its locations this fall.

"This project was very fast track because we wanted to be ready to begin processing when regulatory approval was granted for beef," according to Spencer C. Stevens, vice president of key accounts for San Diego-based SureBeam. "We started construction in August, and the plant was ready to start single-sided treatment by Dec. 1." A second electron beam has since been added so that product can be irradiated from above and below the stainless-steel conveyor belt, increasing the e-beam's penetration to about 3.5 inches. A third linear accelerator that converts electrons into x-rays is also housed in the unit, giving the plant the ability to treat pieces of meat too thick for medium-power e-beams to penetrate.

"You can probably do half a chicken in an electron beam, but x-ray is needed to treat something like a fresh turkey," Stevens points out. "A big design consideration was making the plant versatile enough to process poultry, pork and beef."

Another design challenge was creating a processing area "where there were no direct paths for radiation to escape," he adds. There also had to be equipment in place to quickly evacuate ozone gas when the processing chamber has to be serviced.

Steel and concrete occupies most of the 3,400-sq.-ft. chamber, which stands about 15 feet high. Tandem 24-in.-wide conveyors take a serpentine 250-ft. route through the area, with sufficient room on either side to allow workers to service the equipment and clear any blockages that occur. The equipment is shut down whenever workers must enter. The rest of the cube is solid steel and concrete.

Quality manager Kevin Nanke analyzes dosimeter results in the Sioux City, Ia., plant's lab. The photosensitive film is a fail-safe step for verifying monitoring equipment data. (Photo: George Lindblade)

Ready supply of potential clients

SureBeam, formerly known as TitanScan, has commitments to irradiate meat from several major processors, including Cargill, Tyson, Emmpak and IBP, as well as Kraft and Anchor, pending FDA approval of irradiation of prepared meats. Titan is a $1.6 billion defense contractor that radiates medical supplies and now is focusing on the food industry.

Willie Sutton robbed banks because that's where the money is; SureBeam set up shop in Sioux City because that's where the beef is. IBP is headquartered in nearby Dakota Dunes, S.D., and operates several facilities in the area, as does John Morrell & Co. and other processors. SureBeam leases 14,000-sq.-ft. of production space from Cloverleaf Cold Storage Co., a firm that has served the seasonal warehousing needs of the food industry since 1932. The SureBeam facility abuts one of six Cloverleaf storage plants in Sioux City, allowing SureBeam to piggyback on Cloverleaf's sophisticated refrigeration system.

Temperatures in the processing area are held at about 35 F degrees, though they can be lowered 10 degrees to meet customer needs. Radiation only raises product temperatures a few degrees. The six-bay loading dock is evenly allocated between incoming and outbound trailers. Movable fencing dissects the work area to ensure that untreated product doesn't commingle with treated boxes or that treated product isn't exposed to a double dose of radiation.

Data from the processing unit flows into the plant's control room, where documentation of each product's exposure level and other information is collected and recorded. (Photo: George Lindblade)
Palletized product arrives in master cases and is delivered to the mouth of the conveyor, where boxes are manually placed on the belt. Each case passes an electronic beam to verify that it is the correct product for the designated processing speed. Belt speed dictates radiation dosage. Boxes typically spend five to seven minutes in the chamber before emerging. Robotic depalletizers and palletizers are to be installed at either end of the belt, which will cut the time needed to process a 40,000-lb. truckload to one hour from an hour and a half.

A stretch-wrap machine at the end of the line bundles outbound pallets, re-doing the wrapping that must be removed from incoming pallets. "Stretch wrap is our biggest source of waste," notes facility manager Harlan Clemmons. There is no radioactive-material to dispose, an issue when radioisotopes are used.

When processing is underway, operators place "phantoms" on the belt periodically. Imbedded in each phantom is a dosimeter, a photosensitive film that reacts to the electrons that are bombarding the belt. The color change that occurs in the film allows operators to pinpoint the number of kilograys (kGy) treating the meat. This also verifies the accuracy of monitoring equipment that is calibrated to within 0.1 kGy. The client dictates the specific dose.

A schematic shows the 250-foot path that conveys food past SureBeam's e-beam and x-ray linear accelerators.

Me second, me second

Gaining regulatory approval for meat irradiation has been an epic struggle, dating back four decades. The U.S. Congress included food irradiation processes in the 1958 Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, and FDA approval of medium level radiation treatment of beef came after years of scientific research into the effects of radiation on food.

Even low level dosages (up to 1 kGy) were determined to kill at least 99.9 percent of Salmonella in poultry and E. coli in ground beef by disrupting the pathogens' genetic material. FDA approved irradiation of poultry in 1992, yet no meaningful amounts of treated product have reached retail shelves. Still, SureBeam officials are bullish on e-beam's near-term potential, and a recent Congressional report could add momentum [see Panorama, page 30].

"Once the public has a chance to kick the tires, I think they're going to demand a better product," Stevens predicts. "The tolerances on this machine are tight, the parameters can be monitored on a real-time basis, and it gives the processor a verifiable kill step."

Pasteurized meat is a product many companies are eager to be the second to offer, given uncertainty about consumer reaction to the use of radiation. SureBeam helped with the Twin Cities rollout of Huisken Beef Patties. State health officials also spoke out in favor of pasteurized beef, and private-label versions of the Huisken frozen product have appeared, including the Taste Club brand of wholesaler SuperValu and Schwan's varieties.

The irradiated burgers are retailing at about a 30-cent per pound premium over Huisken's regular frozen hamburger patties. A SureBeam spokesman pegged the processing cost at about a nickel a pound, depending on volume. Higher prices haven't impeded sales. "The initial results were considerably greater than we expected last spring," according to Huisken sales manager Cliff Albertson, "and we've had good, steady growth."

Patties are packaged four high and wrapped in FDA-approved film from Cryovac. Five sides of the box include the phrase, "Treated by irradiation," and the back features the green radura symbol. Borrowing a page from G.D. Searle's NutraSweet branding strategy for aspartame, SureBeam encourages clients to use the SureBeam logo in packaging. Huisken originally put the logo on the back, Albertson says; because consumers reacted so favorably to it, the logo was added to the front. SureBeam also promotes use of the phrase "electronic pasteurization," but Huisken does not use it.

SureBeam's Sioux City facility is a long way from filling its production potential of 250 million pounds a year -- a capacity that would require no more than 26 employees, Clemmons projects -- but early returns from consumer education efforts leave officials guardedly optimistic that production schedules eventually will be filled. If that occurs, public acceptance of this food safety initiative will have arrived, validating the long industry struggle to irradiate food.