A funny thing happened on Wegmans Food Markets' way to selling rolls of irradiated ground beef: the novelty of the packaging and its no-leak virtue may be driving more sales than the added safety.

The novelty of ground beef in rolls is generating more sales of irradiated meat than the added safety at Wegmans Food Markets.

The Rochester, N.Y.-based supermarket chain introduced irradiated ground beef in 1- and 3-lb. chubs in May 2002, adding hamburger patties in MAP packaging a year later. Based on focus group interviews with frequent purchasers, the chain determined the chub was a bigger draw for repeat purchases than the irradiation process. "That surprised us," confesses Wegmans' Jeanne Colleluori.

The functional benefits of irradiation contributed to 3 percent sales growth for the line. Irradiated ground beef now accounts for 6 to 10 percent of overall category sales, Colleluori says. Refrigerated shelf life of 21 days and the opportunity to "cook it the way you like it" are irradiation-derived benefits that consumers like, she adds.

Although USDA insists that the chain include instructions to cook the meat to 160