Giant Food Inc. tomorrow will become the first supermarket chain in the Washington and Baltimore areas to sell irradiated ground beef.
Shoppers will be able to identify the somewhat controversial product: It will be set aside and marked with signs in the meat displays. Three stickers on each package should indicate that the meat has gone through an irradiation process patented by SureBeam Corp. of San Diego.
Given recent high-profile outbreaks of food-borne illness and this summer's recall of nearly 19 million pounds of contaminated beef, Giant said its decision was based on wanting to offer choices to customers who want the safest possible meat.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the treatment of red meat with measured doses of radiation in 1997. But supermarkets have been slow to adopt the technology even though it has been around for nearly 40 years, said Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis.
The companies fear protests and bad publicity, even though irradiation has been used routinely for spices, astronaut food, military meals and even Band-Aids. It decontaminates, controls insects and increases shelf life.
In the past six weeks, 10 major retailers have signed up for SureBeam's services, said SureBeam's spokesman Mark Stephenson. They include Farm Fresh in southeastern Virginia, Pathmark in Philadelphia and New York, and Hy-Vee in the Midwest.
Odonna Mathews, Giant's vice president of consumer affairs, said the irradiated beef will cost the company about 10 to 30 cents extra per pound, but for now Giant will not pass on the cost to customers.
Though the beef will be offered in all Giant stores in this region, it will make up only about 10 percent of the ground beef offered, said Mathews.
"At this point, we want to see what the consumer reaction is," she said.
There should be no difference in taste or look between the two types of beef, she added.
But some public interest groups say the decision to turn to irradiation is unfortunate because it ultimately could let slaughterhouses off the hook by eroding their incentive to improve meat-handling techniques.
"With irradiation, the meat is assumed to be contaminated," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, a director at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We'd like to see steps taken earlier to make sure whatever is in the meat is safe."
Even so, CSPI agrees with the Food and Drug Administration and numerous scientific bodies on one point: Irradiation is a safe process with minimal health risks.
Wenonah Hauter, a director of Public Citizen, said irradiation allows large food corporations to import cheaper food and save a few pennies by extending its shelf life.
The process is rather quick, said SureBeam's Stephenson. Packaged ground beef arrives at a SureBeam service center and is placed on conveyor belts, then passed under an electron beam that, he said, zaps pathogens in a fraction of a second. The belt then loads the beef onto trucks headed for the stores.
Consumers are not likely to squawk, Bruhn of the Center for Consumer Research said. Many surveys, she said, suggest that 80 percent of consumers are eager to buy irradiated food and 80 percent recognize the names salmonella and E. coli.
"It's a no-brainer for the supermarkets," Bruhn said.