Irradiation is gaining greater acceptance in the food industry as a key component in the fight against Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli and other food-borne pathogens. And for good reason. Given the disturbing number of pathogen-related recalls that occurred in the U.S. last year, the food industry needs every weapon at its disposal to improve the safety of the nation's food supply.

It wasn't long after USDA approved beef irradiation that Edgerton, Minn.-based Huisken Meats joined forces with San Diego-based SureBeam Corporation, a subsidiary of the Titan Corporation, and began irradiating ground beef products in May of 2000.

Huisken began irradiating its ground beef by shipping it to SureBeam's electronic pasteurization facility in Sioux City, Iowa. Shortly after, other large meat producers followed suit (Cargill, IBP, Emmpak and Omaha Steaks). Within a few months of Huisken's announcement, SureBeam also had another facility up and running in Hawaii, this time irradiating fruit.

But due to concerns about the safety of irradiation -- concerns that are as yet unproved -- some industry members still regard irradiation with trepidation. When Huisken introduced its irradiated ground beef to the marketplace, it was met with semi-open arms. "There was a great deal of uncertainty about how our product would be received," said Huisken sales manager Cliff Albertson.

The product was initially distributed to 84 retail stores in the Twin Cities area, but is presently in over 1,500 stores covering 14 states. Huisken recently launched irradiated product in California, but Albertson is expecting the fight for total consumer acceptance will be a lengthy one. "There's a huge amount of consumer education that needs to take place, this is not going to be an overnight sensation," he added.

"Once we get past the stigma associated with the irradiation of food, this industry will explode," said David Reeder, executive vice president for Fort Wayne, Ind.-based BioSterile Technology, Inc.

While food irradiation facilities continue to emerge nationwide, Reeder believes that the future of irradiation is in in-line systems, which brings irradiation technology to the processor rather than bring the processor -- or at least his product -- to the technology. BioSterile Technology specializes in e-beam and x-ray technologies. The concept of in-line irradiation involves miniaturizing the system and placing it directly on the production line, so that the product goes from processing to packaging to scanning, and then out the door.

Larry Oberkfell, CEO of SureBeam, agrees with Reeder's assessment, but also sees off-site facilities remaining part of the process. "In-line will be the long-term strategy most companies employ, but service centers will always be the first point of entry for a company to test the technology," Oberkfell said.

In or out?

Convenience and cost-savings are two basic reasons why companies may ultimately favor in-line irradiation rather than off-site services. In-line irradiation isn't a new technology. In fact, it has been used in the medical industry for years, but is just beginning to find a home in the food industry. BioSterile has developed an in-line electron beam system that accommodates in-line plant processing with little modification to the facility. "The unit is self-shielding, so you don't have to add shielding to a room. Typically, the only modification involves conveyor integration," said Reeder.

The compact unit stands six feet tall and takes up 84 square feet of space, according to Reeder. The in-line system is available in energy ranges from 200 keV and 500 keV up to 5 MeV, 2 or 4 kW systems with multiple-mode capability, as well as the automated capability to combine both modes to irradiate products of different densities within the same load.

"This system is designed for your small- to mid-sized companies that have volumes ranging from 1 million to 50 million pounds a year," said Reeder. "We targeted that realm because it's the small to medium-sized companies that collectively control the market."

Item by item

Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Mitek Advanced Technologies takes it one step further than BioSterile. While both offer self-shielding in-line irradiation systems, Mitek has introduced an in-line system capable of delivering and measuring dose electronically item by item. DynaTrak DTXX enables processors to merge several products into one conveyor line, passing products through the irradiation system, giving the processor individual doses for each product. Item by item dosage delivery and measurement is made possible through the use of bar codes, bar code readers and electronic dosimetry sensors.

Janette Kewley, Mitek's director of business development, hopes this technology takes off when the highly anticipated ready-to-eat petition passes. "The processor has total control over the treatment of their product -- temperature, delivery and recording of dose, and no logistic worries," she said. Another unique feature are the system controls, which can be operated using either English or Spanish, "A benefit most processors will appreciate with today's diverse workforce," she noted.

Mitek has also developed another technology specifically for ground beef. Called DynaFlo for Ground beef (DFG), the technology allows the ground beef to pass through a vacuum pump, through a piping system where the ground beef is irradiated, exit the piping system to a clean room situation, then is packaged. "Other companies have tried to pump product but haven't been able to do it effectively -- we believe we have the bugs worked out and can make this work," Kewley said. When the ready-to-eat products are approved, Kewley says this system will have applications in the juice industry for cold pasteurization of orange juice and apple juice -- to name a few.

Oberkfell acknowledges SureBeam is also involved in talks with its partners about installing in-line systems, and expects to have several in place by the end of this year.

"We're involved in talks with our partners about installing in-line systems," Oberkfell acknowledged. "By the end of this year, we expect to have several in place." One of those partners is fresh beef and pork producer IBP of Dakota Dunes, S.Dak., but as IBP man-ager of communications Gary Mickelson explains, his company already has one advantage. "One of our largest beef production facilities is located within a few miles of the Sioux City irradiation facility, so we basically already have a system in our backyard," he said.

Huisken, like many other companies, doesn't have the same luxury. Albertson points to the high costs of shipping products as one reason companies will turn to in-line. "In-line is the future of irradiation," said Albertson. "There will likely be an ongoing need for service centers, but all the major companies will go in-line." Huisken is in discussions to install an electronic accelerator in-line at its new production facility, and Albertson expects other companies to follow suit.

Chip Colonna, vice president of perishable foods, IBA Food Safety Division, has seen first-hand the benefits of irradiating products off-site. "There's certainly a need for in-line, but there's a question of how practical it is to install an in-line system as opposed to attaching an irradiation facility adjacent to their own processing facility," said Colonna. Colonna divulged that IBA is in the process of developing a smaller type in-line system but concerns over the amount of space prevents him from fully supporting the technology. "It sounds wonderful, but there's some misperception in the marketplace that an in-line system just goes on the back of a case packer. That's not necessarily true," Colonna said. "Our facilities allow us to irradiate finished cases of product, and I think that's where the market will stay."

IBA's 70,000 sq.-ft. e-beam/x-ray facility, set to open in second quarter of 2001 in Bridgeport, New Jersey, will be the first to offer large capacity x-ray processing in the United States. "We've invested a tremendous amount of money in support of irradiation, and our plans are to begin construction on several other dedicated food facilities around the country," continued Colonna.

In early January of 2001, IBA received approval from the USDA to use gamma irradiation to treat meat and poultry products at a food treatment facility in Illinois. Already offering x-ray and e-beam facilities, IBA is allowing its customers to choose the technology that best fits their needs.

While USDA and FDA both monitor irradiation, FDA plays a more critical role in how far irradiation will progress in the food industry. Although USDA is responsible for writing and enforcing policy on the permitted doses and labeling of irradiated product, FDA evaluates irradiation as a whole to determine whether or not it is harmful.

A food industry coalition, led by the National Food Processors Association, requested FDA in mid-1999 to approve irradiation for deli meats, frozen foods, prepared fresh foods and fresh juices -- ready-to-eat products. At press time, FDA had yet to reach a decision.

Market will "go wild"

"When FDA amends the current regulation to include processed foods, that's when you'll see the market really go wild," predicts Reeder.

"USDA has said the only known way to kill E. coli in raw ground beef is irradiation," commented Wil Williams, vice president of corporate communications for SureBeam. Fellow SureBeamer Oberkfell, a 20-year veteran of food manufacturing, knows just how difficult detecting harmful bacteria can be. "Listeria is very difficult to find and, once you do, it's hard to kill," he said. Oberkfell has a bold prediction for the future of irradiation. "Within the next five years, we'll come to a point where irradiation for entire product categories will be mandatory just like milk pasteurization."Meat processors aren't the only companies expressing interest in in-line. So, too, are fruit and vegetable companies. "I would say that 95 percent of the companies calling about our in-line technology are produce, fruit and vegetable people," said Reeder. He attributes this to the 18,800-sq.-ft. Hawaii Pride Center SureBeam facility built in the summer of 2000.

For years, Hawaiian fruit producers couldn't get product off the island unless they processed it to destroy pests that can be harmful to mainland agriculture. Before irradiation became available locally, their only option was to use hot water vapor, which can be harmful to tropical fruit

"The future of exports for tropical fruits in Hawaii has always been limited because of our fruit fly quarantine, which prevents us from exporting without post harvest treatment of some type," said John Clark, CEO of Hawaii Pride. His company, he noted, began irradiating papaya after years of research and testing.

"Now that these products can get around the quarantine, fruit can be shipped all year versus only in winter months," commented Reeder. "Other companies are hearing about it and trying to figure out how they can compete."

Along with killing harmful bacteria, irradiation can extend the shelf life of products, as well as change overall product categories. According to Oberkfell, refrigerated products that had a shorter shelf life could have a longer one; frozen products could be refrigerated products; and canned goods could be refrigerated or shelf stable.

"With increasing regulatory issues, the processor is ultimately responsible for the safety of the food they ship out to customers," Kewley said. "In-line irradiation systems offer processors the peace of mind that they have done all that is within their capability to deliver the safest food possible."

Is ready-to-eat ready for irradiation?

In August of 1999, the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) along with a coalition of food industry members, petitioned the FDA for the approval of irradiation on ready-to-eat products, which would include deli meats, frozen foods, prepared fresh food and fresh juices. Initially expected to pass relatively quickly, the petition instead remains in limbo.

"If you look at where we have the most cases of food poisoning, besides ground beef, it's on the processed food side," commented David Reeder, executive vice president of BioSterile Technology.

In December of 2000, Cargill Turkey Products recalled 16.7 million pounds of its ready-to-eat products due to possible Listeria contamination, forcing Cargill to layoff nearly 200 employees from its Waco, Texas facility. Four deaths and three stillbirths were reported in connection with the outbreak.

Brian Folkerts, vice president of government affairs for the NFPA, doubts the Cargill situation will have any impact on FDA moving the petition through quicker. "FDA has already placed high priority on the petition and I think it's just a matter of reconciling some of the technical issues," he said. Folkerts and NFPA had hoped the petition would receive approval in 2000, but expects it to be done no later than first quarter of 2001.

"With the number of Listeria outbreaks you read about everyday, the ready-to-eat petition is definitely needed," said Chip Colonna, vice president of perishable foods, food safety division for IBA, which has 23 irradiation facilities nationwide. One of those facilities, in Edgewood, New York, tests meat and poultry products for processors, but Colonna explains that more ready-to-eat companies have approached IBA in anticipation of the petition passing.

"Ready-to-eat processors are looking forward to the approval and want to be prepared to have product available to put on the market once approval is received," Colonna said. In regards to the sheer volume of products included under the petition, Colonna believes the ready-to-eat market represents the largest opportunity as well as the greatest need.

Sidebar 2:
Irradiation about to get fishy?

In the United States, beef, pork, lamb, poultry, fruits, vegetables, wheat, wheat flour, shell eggs, herbs, spices and dried vegetable seasonings are presently approved for irradiation. Ready-to-eat foods are expected to be next, but what comes after that? Michelle Marcotte, president of independent irradiation consulting firm, Marcotte Consulting, doesn't believe the answer is fish, at least not in general. But she does think that crustaceans and mullets will be next.

There's two petitions currently before FDA, one on mullets (clams, oysters) and one on crustaceans (shrimp, lobster, crab, crayfish), everything except fin fish," said Marcotte, who predicts the two will pass with reasonable swiftness.

Marcotte worked with Brian Reed, another consultant, on the petition, which was submitted by the National Fisheries Institute with IBA, MDS Nordian, and the Louisiana State Department of Fish and Agriculture as co-petitioners.

Companies acknowledge fish as being the next logical market to be approved after the ready-to-eat petition passes. "Fish carry Listeria just like deli meats and processed foods," confirmed Wil Williams, vice president of corporate communications for SureBeam Corporation, a leader in irradiation technology.

According to David Reeder, executive vice president for BioSterile Technology Inc., "There is no other methodology you can use to ensure the safety of fish -- It's a natural fit."