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Coming to school cafeterias: irradiated burger

Preparing to include the meat in the school lunch program next year, the USDA leaves the final decision up to school boards and, it urges, parents.

By Times staff, wire services
Published May 30, 2003

WASHINGTON - Depending on decisions by school boards and - if the USDA gets its way - parents, some of the 28-million children in the national school lunch program could be eating irradiated hamburger meat next year.

The Agriculture Department is seeking suppliers to furnish ground meat zapped by bacteria-killing gamma rays or electricity. Despite apprehension among some people about the technology, the department issued specifications Thursday to schools notifying them of the coming availability and said it will seek bids from suppliers by January.

The USDA wants school boards to notify parents if they serve sanitized meats in school meals.

"Each school district will have the option to choose between irradiated and nonirradiated ground beef products and will decide how to notify parents and students if they choose to offer them," said Eric Bost, head of the department's Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the school lunch program.

In a letter to the school districts, Bost urged school boards to notify parents of their decision and consider such measures as marking monthly menus distributed to parents and putting up signs on serving lines.

"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 decisionmaking process," he said.

When compared with conventional beef, "the product that's irradiated is going to be safer, no question," said Elsa Murano, the department's assistant secretary in charge of food safety.

Congress ordered the department last year to start accepting irradiation as a method of sanitizing meat for the school lunch program. Irradiated meat has been allowed in grocery stores since 1999, when the Agriculture Department concluded the benefits - preventing food poisoning - outweighed any risk of side effects.

Bost said he doesn't know yet how much irradiated hamburger the government will purchase.

An estimated 132-million pounds of ground beef, at a price of $1.25 per pound, was provided to schools in the lunch program last year. Irradiated hamburger costs up to 20 cents more per pound.

So far, only one school system - Point Arena, Calif., with 500 students - has outright rejected using irradiated meat in its lunch program, according to Public Citizen, a group that contends researchers have yet to prove the meat won't cause cancer.

"We're very fearful of what will happen when we go through a whole generation of kids that have been consuming this stuff," said Tony Corbo, a spokesman for the group. "They're going to use the kids as an experiment."

Research shows that most of the radiation passes through without being absorbed. The small amount that does remain kills the bacteria.

Studies on laboratory animals "for over the last 30 to 40 years, not only in the United States but worldwide, have shown there is no health effect that is detrimental to people," Murano said.

The Agriculture Department has begun an information campaign on irradiated meat after research indicated consumers have been slow to accept it partly because they have not been told of benefits. The department plans to send out brochures to schools for distribution to parents.

Irradiated meat carries a radura symbol, resembling a flower in the middle of a circle. Packages also carry a message explaining to consumers that the meat has been irradiated.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation for food in 1997, and irradiated meats are beginning to show up in the freezer cases in many Florida grocery chains, such as Publix Super Markets. Colorado Boxed Beef in Auburndale has been packaging its New Generation line of frozen beef patties and chicken tenders for more than a year.

They are treated by Food Technology Inc. in Mulberry, one of several food irradiation companies that set up shop in recent years. Food Technology, which had revenues of about $1.2-million in 2002, said it has been getting most of its business treating medical products and consumer goods until people are more willing to buy irradiated foods.

Public resistance to irradiated foods has dropped dramatically in the past five years as food safety concerns continue to rise. Surveys show that 57 percent of American shoppers are willing to try irradiated products today, up from 15 percent in 1997, according to the Food Marketing Institute. However, only 5 percent have spotted irradiated foods in their grocery stores and only 2 percent have tried them.

- Times staff Writer Mark Albright contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service.

[Last modified May 30, 2003, 15:32:51]