Irradiation as the answer?

By Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association.

The meat industry took a public relations shellacking in 2009. The constant barrage of stories regarding E.coli, salmonella and ammonia-washed ground beef did little to instill consumer confidence in the nation’s meat supply.

To address these concerns, Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, urged USDA to approve AMI’s long-standing petition to allow slaughterhouses to irradiate beef carcasses to eliminate the E.coli.

Say again? Irradiation is the answer?

Granted, E.coli can be present in any size plant, but the skyrocketing prevalence of this pathogen is also linked to the industrialization of the meat system. Animals fattened on concentrated diets are processed in plants handling more than 4,000 head per day. Trim from these carcasses are mixed and blended. A typical ground beef patty contains the remnants of more than 60 cattle.

Ignore for the purposes of argument that federal law flat-out prohibits irradiation in any certified organic product. Irradiation kills pathogens. Heck, with enough irradiation, cow manure can be made safe to eat. Yum.

Irradiation is not the food-safety silver bullet Large processors can easily afford expensive technology, and spread costs among the thousands of head processed each day. For smaller processors, irradiation represents one more expensive “solution” to solve a problem that they probably didn’t create.

There’s a better approach to addressing pathogens like E.coli that’s far more complex than zapping carcasses.

  • We need to quit pushing animals from birth to slaughter as quickly as possible. The “hot” rations, growth hormones and antibiotics used to fatten livestock tend to create digestive conditions that cause high levels of E.coli.

  • Let’s diversify—rather than concentrate—the meat processing sector. Slower processing speeds and less co-mingling will reduce conditions that allow the pathogens to spread from carcass to carcass.

  • We need more facilities for pathogen testing. Federal guidelines encourage processors to “test and hold” products until results are known, but do not prohibit shipping products before receiving those results. The shortage of accredited facilities often forces small processors to wait several days to receive results. That’s a huge burden in terms of inventory management and loss of shelf life. Consequently, many processors ship products before test results are received, and then hope they do not have to issue a recall.

AMI has asked USDA to issue mandatory “test and hold” regulations. That’s a start. But speeding up the turnaround for results is critical as well.

Pathogens in meat are a significant factor in eroding consumer confidence. Perhaps restoring that confidence should involve a larger commitment than simply installing one more piece of expensive machinery.

Dave Carter is the executive director of the National Bison Association and principal of Crystal Springs Consulting Inc. He maintains a small herd of Buffalo in Colorado.

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