A General Accounting Office report prepared at the request of the U.S. House Committee on Commerce concludes the benefits of food irradiation outweigh any risks, but industry insiders question if it is enough to motivate retailers to step up marketing of irradiated beef, poultry and other products.

The report points out "food safety experts believe that irradiation can be an effective tool in helping to control foodborne pathogens and should be incorporated as part of a comprehensive program to enhance food safety." It estimates 95 million pounds of spices, herbs and dry vegetable seasonings are currently being irradiated annually, along with 1.5 million pounds of fruit and vegetables and 500,000 pounds of poultry. Despite irradiation's effectiveness in reducing foodborne illnesses that cause up to $37.1 billion in economic costs, retailers remain reluctant to market irradiated foods, the report notes.

"We applaud the GAO for coming out with such a favorable report on irradiation. The question is whether retailers also will view it in a favorable light and design marketing programs around it," observes the head of one irradiation service company, who requested anonymity.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced in February it intended to offer irradiated beef on a trial basis. "We're going to let our customers decide," a spokeswoman said. "We know they want to try it, but they will determine if irradiated beef becomes more than a test."

The test will involve two-pound packages of frozen beef patties and is to be conducted at 150 stores. There is no target date for conducting the test, the spokeswoman said.