USDA and industry to investigate irradiation, food safety. Scientists at the research arm of USDA plans to partner with Ion Beam Applications (IBA) to further study irradiation and food safety in order to help guarantee the quality of the U.S. food supply.

Under the five-year agreement, the Food Safety Research Unit of USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) will use IBA's commercial sterilization and ionization facilities to compare the effectiveness of gamma, electron beam and X-ray sources in controlling food-borne pathogens. IBA has been producing irradiation systems for more than 40 years and treating foods, particularly poultry, seafood, cheese and spices, for more than 15 years.

The USDA-ARS program will also examine how these treatments affect the properties of food such as taste and texture, and how to optimize the benefits of the process. The agreement is the result of growing public concern over food-borne illness and FDA's recent approval of irradiation to eliminate harmful microorganisms from meat.

"As an unbiased governmental research unit, ARS is able to provide the food industry with an unparalleled source of factual data concerning irradiated foods," said Pat Adams, president of IBA's food safety division.

Cleanliness is next to... A study by Utah State University, Spectrum Consulting and meat packaging supplier Volk Enterprises suggests that consumers are not as conscientious about kitchen hygiene and cleanliness as they may think they are. During the study -- A Camera's View of Consumer Food Handling and Preparation Practices -- 99 participants were observed preparing a choice of salad and one of the following: meatloaf, breaded chicken breast and marinated halibut. Observations showed that only 34 percent of participants washed their hands with soap. Seventy three percent used cloth towels -- a significant agent in cross-contamination -- to wipe kitchen surfaces instead of more sanitary paper towels. Nearly all subjects of the study cross-contaminated their salad with raw meat through a variety of transfer agents, including unwashed hands, utensils, surfaces and bowls. As Volk pointed out in a recent newsletter, "The study results seem to reinforce the idea that much of food safety is literally in the hands of the consumer."