In light of continuing consumer food-safety concerns, irradiation represents an effective tool toward reducing foodborne pathogens, particularly in ground beef. The federal government approved the use of irradiation to treat raw meat and meat products in February 2000, but the technology has seen only limited use. Food manufacturers can use irradiation to reduce or eliminate pathogens from beef, lamb and other red meats as well as poultry, pork, and spices.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that food-borne pathogens are responsible for 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.

Consumers, however, remain unclear on the potential benefits or risks of food irradiation. A recent CDC AFoodNet@ survey found that only half of consumers were willing to buy irradiated meat or poultry, and only a fourth were willing to pay a premium for such products, which are likely to cost more than comparable non-irradiated products.

Research data suggest, however, that consumer attitudes could change as they learn more about irradiation. The FoodNet survey indicates that only 48 percent of adults have heard of food irradiation. Several other studies have shown that consumers become more willing to buy irradiated foods after learning more about it. Results from a University of Georgia study conducted in 1993 indicated that the proportion of consumers choosing irradiated over non-irradiated ground beef rose from 52 to 71 percent after viewing a short audiovisual educational program.

Nevertheless, annual surveys by the Food Marketing Institute indicate that the willingness of supermarket shoppers to buy irradiated food declined slightly during the late 1990’s, in spite of increased news coverage of the issue.

Commercial interest in food irradiation, according to ERS, appears to be stronger now than during the early 1990’s. This is due to heightened industry concerns about the adverse consequences of selling contaminated food, as well as the recent approval of irradiation for raw meat and meat products.