Irradiated ground beef makes headway in nation's supermarkets

Oct 23, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – Irradiated ground beef has been showing up in more and more American supermarkets this year, with at least a dozen chains representing thousands of stores now stocking it, according to reports from the Minnesota Beef Council and other industry sources.

Last week, FarmFresh, a 37-store group in the Hampton Roads, Va., area became the latest in a series of grocery chains that have announced they are selling, or will soon begin selling, irradiated ground beef.

"It's a significant and growing but still relatively small part of the total market for ground beef," said Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council in Bloomington. "But keep in mind there wasn't any irradiated ground beef two and a half years ago."

Irradiated ground beef made its national debut in some Minnesota stores in May 2000, a few months after the US Department of Agriculture approved the safety treatment in late 1999. Today, SureBeam Corp., based in San Diego, irradiates ground beef for about 4,000 stores, according to Mark Stephenson, the company's vice president for public relations. "In the last 45 days we've just added about 700 more stores around the country," he said. "The total number of stores is a little over 4,000, and the geographic region covers about two thirds of the country."

SureBeam is the largest US food-irradiation company, treating ground beef with electron-beam technology at plants in Sioux City, Iowa; Glendale Heights, Ill.; Vernon, Calif.; and College Station, Tex. (the Texas plant is primarily a research facility). The company has a total capacity of about 1 billion pounds annually, according to Stephenson. He said SureBeam's current volume is "a fraction" of its total capacity, but the company expects to process 350 million pounds of ground beef, or about a third of capacity, in 2003.

Eustice recently compiled a list of grocery chains that sell irradiated ground beef, including companies in the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast. Here is a summary:

  • SuperValu, Eden Prairie, Minn., with 1,260 stores, began offering irradiated patties in May 2000. SuperValu is the parent company of Cub Foods, based in Stillwater, Minn., which also began selling irradiated patties in May 2000. FarmFresh, the Virginia group mentioned above, is also a unit of SuperValu.
  • Rainbow Foods, with about 40 stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, began selling irradiated patties in May 2000.
  • Hy-Vee Supermarkets, Des Moines, Iowa, with 188 stores in seven states, began offering irradiated fresh ground beef Oct 14.
  • Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y., with 102 stores in six states, began selling irradiated fresh ground beef this month.
  • Wegmans Food Markets, an upscale, 62-store chain based in Rochester, N.Y., launched sales of irradiated frozen ground beef patties in May 2001. More recently the group began offering fresh irradiated ground beef.
  • Publix Supermarkets, Lakeland, Fla., with 711 stores in five states, will begin offering irradiated ground beef patties, chicken breasts, and chicken tenders early in 2003, according to a company news release issued Sep 18.
  • D'Agostino Supermarkets, with 23 stores in New York City and neighboring Westchester County, began offering irradiated fresh ground beef in September.
  • Lowes Foods, Winston-Salem, N.C., began offering irradiated fresh ground beef at 48 of its 105 stores in September.
  • Pathmark Supermarkets, Carteret, N.J., with 143 stores in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, announced it would start selling irradiated fresh ground beef this month.
  • Kroger Co. began marketing irradiated fresh ground beef at about a dozen stores in the Peoria, Ill., area last February.
  • Schnucks Market Inc., St. Louis, began offering irradiated fresh beef at stores in Missouri and Illinois last February.

Eustice also said he has seen irradiated ground beef in two other Minneapolis-St. Paul area chains, Lunds and Byerly's, though the stores have not publicly announced the products.

Most of the companies on Eustice's list are using SureBeam to irradiate their ground beef. Publix, however, said it will be using Food Technology Service Inc., an irradiation facility in Mulberry, Fla., that treats meals for US space shuttle crews. Eustice's compilation said the company uses gamma-ray technology rather than electron-beam equipment.

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group that opposes food irradiation, said last month that the 80-store Pick 'n' Save grocery chain in Wisconsin and several stores in Florida had stopped selling irradiated beef after starting it in 2001. The Washington, DC-based group also said that Wal-Mart and Publix had backed out of deals to sell irradiated beef. The Public Citizen statement was issued Sep 10. But Publix announced on Sep 18 its plans to sell irradiated beef and chicken, apparently invalidating part of the Public Citizen report.

Eustice said he believes one grocery chain in Wisconsin and another in Nebraska stopped offering irradiated beef after a brief trial. "They did absolutely nothing to promote it," he said, adding, "Every irradiated product that's been introduced is still on market. There has not been one line of irradiated product that has failed."

Eustice cited several other companies, including meat wholesalers and restaurant chains, that are selling irradiated beef. For example, International Dairy Queen, based in Edina, Minn., now offers irradiated hamburgers at 60 stores in Minnesota, and two Champps restaurants in the Milwaukee area do the same. Other companies that market irradiated ground beef directly to consumers include Schwan's, based in Marshall, Minn., which sells frozen patties through home delivery.

The pattern of geographic spread of irradiated ground beef has been unusual, according to Stephenson. "This trend really began in the Midwest and it's working its way to the coast. It went east first and it's working its way down the eastern seaboard. Typically trends work their way from the coast inward, but this is the opposite."

Eustice called Minnesota the "epicenter" of meat irradiation. "Every store I've been in in the state of Minnesota in the past year has had irradiated ground beef," he said. Stephenson agreed that the state has been in the vanguard, commenting, "Minnesota has really been the leader in educating the consumer about the process of food irradiation. And without that leadership we feel we wouldn't be as far along as we are today."

Although irradiated product remains a small part of the total volume of ground beef sold, Stephenson said growth has been relatively fast over the past 2 years. It took 30 years for retailers to fully accept and support pasteurized milk, so the headway that irradiated ground beef has made over the past 2 years has been dramatic by comparison, he said.

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