Annual research on the away-from-home eating habits of Americans routinely shows hamburgers and cheeseburgers account for about three-fourths of beef meals outside the home. That staggering statistic underscores the importance of irradiated beef hitting the meat case this spring. And much of the credit for this success is due to efforts funded by your $1 per head beef checkoff.

After decades of research and years of haggling with the Food and Drug Administration, irradiated or "pasteurized" beef was given the green light by FDA back in February. The first frozen irradiated beef patties went on sale in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area on May 16, and the first fresh ground beef treated with irradiation was placed on supermarket shelves in six Florida retail outlets on June 16.

The Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo), a coalition of leaders from all segments of the beef and food industries dedicated to preventing E. Coli O157:H7 in beef, was instrumental in helping irradiated beef move from the research labs to the stores. BIFSCo identified research projects targeted toward gaining a better understanding of the biology and ecology of E.coli O157:H7 and the application of irradiation in certain ground beef products as top funding priorities. BIFSCo and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, along with other meat groups, supported irradiation as an effective means to control harmful pathogens such as E.coli O157:H7. Consumer studies were conducted to determine product acceptance and to identify public concerns. A CNN spot poll of consumers taken near the time of the first frozen patties hitting the shelves found that 79 percent responded positively to the use of irradiation. Other research has found an 80 percent acceptance rate by consumers.

By helping to improve food safety, irradiation should also help build consumer demand for beef. And the past three years have produced several successes that are improving beef demand. Beef's new heat-and-eat products have grabbed the most headlines the past couple of years, but your checkoff is working on many fronts to spread the message that beef is a healthy, wholesome food that fits into a modern lifestyle. For instance, when the Dietary Guidelines 2000 were released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this spring, NCBA was quick to note that beef fits into a balanced diet.
Demand for beef is growing for the first time in two decades, and your beef checkoff has played an important role in helping build that demand.

That's why it is disappointing to see the continued efforts of those who would destroy this successful industry self-help program. Last month Montana ranchers Steve and Jeanne Charter announced they will appeal the decision of a USDA administrative law judge who fined the Charter's $12,000 for willfully refusing to pay the beef checkoff. The Charter's hope their suit will lead to a decision that the checkoff is unconstitutional, which would end the mandatory program.

That's also the goal of the Livestock Marketing Association (LMA), which last month announced they would file suit against Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman if a date for a referendum on the beef checkoff was not set within 90 days. Last December LMA filed petitions asking for a vote to be held and has been frustrated by USDA's slow response in verifying the signatures.

While the beef industry enjoys the success and improved prices that increases in consumer demand bring, it's clear that the checkoff remains in jeopardy. Should efforts to end the checkoff succeed, those responsible will have done a great disservice to the industry from which they earn their livelihood.