May 30, 2003 (CIDRAP News) The debut of irradiated ground beef in school cafeterias grew more likely yesterday with the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) announcement that it will make the product available to schools starting next January.
Following a congressional directive in last year's farm bill, USDA released specifications for the purchase of irradiated ground beef for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). But the agency emphasized that school districts can choose whether to order irradiated beef.
"Each school district will have the option to choose between irradiated and non-irradiated ground beef products and will decide how to notify parents and students if they choose to offer them," Eric Bost, undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, stated in a USDA news release.
"While USDA does not have the authority to require that schools inform parents and students about whether or not the district will be ordering irradiated beef, USDA is strongly encouraging schools to provide information to students, teachers, food service personnel, school administrators, parents and caregivers as part of the decision-making process," Bost said.
The Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation of raw meat and poultry in 1997, and the USDA approved retail sales of the products in 1999. However, the department had a policy against buying irradiated beef for the NSLP. The 2002 farm legislation reversed this by directing USDA to consider all federally approved food safety technologies in buying food for the lunch program.
Last November, USDA invited the public to comment on how it should implement the congressional directive, and it continued taking comments until recently. The agency has posted the comments on its Web site.
Congress also directed USDA to consider the "acceptability" of products provided in its commodity programs, the agency said. Therefore, before it makes irradiated beef available to schools, "USDA will provide balanced consumer education materials to all school districts to use in educating parents, students and the community in their decision to order the product," the agency said. An information package will be mailed to school districts in June.
USDA also said that community educational materials under development in Minnesota will be made available to schools this fall. In a USDA-funded program, two Minnesota school districts have provided irradiation information to school staff members and parents and are currently conducting surveys to assess how the materials have affected attitudes (see May 29 CIDRAP News story for more information.) The educational materials will be presented at the American School Food Service Association annual meeting in July, USDA officials said.
The agency took pains to make clear that irradiation will not replace other food safety standards and measures used in producing and preparing ground beef. "Irradiation technology is another tool to enhance food safety," said Elsa Murano, undersecretary for food safety. "It is important to remember, however, that this technology is not a substitute for proper hygiene, good sanitation and safe handling and preparation practices in the processing plant and school cafeterias."
Schools participating in the NSLP obtain nearly all of their meat, poultry, and cheese from the USDA, officials said. Both irradiated and non-irradiated ground beef will be available to schools. The agency said it does not have authority to require school cafeterias to label food so that diners will know which dishes contain irradiated ground beef and which don't. But the agency said it will "strongly encourage" schools to communicate the information via cafeteria signs, letters to parents, Web site postings, or monthly menus.
The department said irradiated ground beef will cost 13 to 20 cents more per pound than other ground beef because of the additional handling and packaging, the cost of irradiation itself, and post-irradiation testing for pathogens.
Public Citizen, a consumer activist group that has long opposed food irradiation, yesterday condemned the USDA step as "an error in moral judgment." The group charged that school children "will become guinea pigs in a government experiment that has neglected parental concerns and disregarded numerous studies that show the potentially harmful health effects of eating irradiated food." The group also accused USDA of being "willing to put our children's health at risk to help cover up the meat industry's sanitation failures."
Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, a food irradiation advocate, responded to Public Citizen's critique. "Unfortunately the real error in moral judgment is the ongoing fear-mongering and misinformation campaign by Public Citizen regarding the well established safety of food irradiation," said Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, which publishes this Web site. "Despite the efforts by many public- and private-sector organizations to ensure the safety of hamburger, it's simply not possible to guarantee without the use of irradiation. This means that until children have routine access to irradiated hamburger, we will continue to experience life-threatening outbreaks of Escherichia coli O157:H7 infections in this vulnerable population."
The USDA specifications call for ground beef to be irradiated at a dose between 1.35 and 3.0 kilograys, using gamma ray, electron-beam, or x-ray sources. A 1.35 kGy dose is enough to kill 99.9% of E coli O157:H7, the agency said.
USDA noted that food irradiation has been approved in 37 countries for more than 40 products and has been endorsed by the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the Codex Alimentarius Commission.
USDA news release
Public Citizen statement