Despite recent protests against irradiated meats, San Diego’s Titan Corp. continues to move full steam ahead with its food pasteurization technology.
Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group, is calling on consumers not to buy packaged meat from Wal-Mart once the discount retail chain begins to test-market irradiated meat.
The group claims food irradiation has not been proven safe. Wal-Mart hasn’t indicated when the discount store chain will begin selling the meat.
The Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation of red meat in 1997. Irradiation uses Cobalt 60, a radioactive isotope, to bombard food with electromagnetic gamma rays. The technology has been controversial due to its use of radioactive materials.
“Corporate agribusiness has convinced the government to abandon its protective role, allowing companies like Wal-Mart to use food irradiation to extend the shelf life of meat beyond what is appropriate and mask the unhygienic conditions in which animals are raised, slaughtered and processed,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project.
While irradiation has some concerned, Gene Ray, Titan’s founder, president and CEO, said food pasteurization solves a real national public health problem.
Food-borne disease kills nearly 9,000 Americans a year and sickens thousands more, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Last year, Titan launched the first system in the United States to electronically pasteurize ground beef at the Cloverleaf Cold Storage facility in Sioux City, Iowa.
Titan’s food pasteurization technology, called SureBeam, is compared to a microwave oven. The electron beam system uses electricity to destroy bacteria, such as E. coli, listeria and salmonella, without affecting the taste or nutritional value of the food.
The electrons disrupt the DNA chain of the bacteria, either killing the bacteria or rendering it harmless and unable to reproduce.
Titan’s SureBeam technology had its genesis in the Star Wars missile defense program 16 years ago. Titan has used the SureBeam technology over the last eight years to sterilize medical products.
Titan has formed a joint venture called Hawaii Pride LLC, which will use an X-ray system to rid fruits in Hawaii of fruit flies. The process will also double the shelf life of the fruits.
Titan’s food pasteurization technology also can be used on strawberries. Ray said Titan is in discussions with major strawberry distributors in California for potential use of the SureBeam technology.
“It’s a perfectly safe process that’s been proven and used,” Ray said.
Christine Bruhn, professor of food science and consumer behavior at UC Davis, said irradiation and Titan’s SureBeam technology are both safe.
“When I first started investigating the technology, my concern was, is this technology really overstated? Is it as good as they say it is?” said Bruhn, also director of the UC Davis Center for Consumer Research. “My view has gone from a skeptic to someone who believes this technology offers advantages to the public.”
The main advantage, she said, is food safety.
She pointed out organizations and agencies like the World Health Organization, the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and the American Medical Association are all proponents of irradiation.
Bruhn compared meat irradiation to milk pasteurization. People used to develop a variety of bacterial food-borne illnesses such as tuberculosis and salmonella from drinking milk , until pasteurization was introduced, she said.
“What happened is there was a significant increase in health after that,” she said.
Bruhn said irradiation, meanwhile, was first discovered before the 20th century, and has been used on food since the 1970s.
One of the early applications of irradiation was in Japan, where the technology was used to extend the shelf life of potatoes.
“When you talk to scientists about this being a new technology, they kind of roll their eyes because it’s not,” Bruhn said.
She believes future applications for irradiation include cooked meat, such as lunch meats, and minimally processed vegetables, such as pre-sliced baby carrots.
The market potential for Titan is huge, Ray said.
“If all the chicken in the United States was pasteurized, that would tally to about a $1.5 billion market,” he said.
Ray said Titan executives are also in discussions with some of the nation’s ports to use the SureBeam technology on imported fruits.
Some ports, such as San Diego, have come under public scrutiny in recent years for importing fruits that have been treated with the pesticide methyl bromide.