In late spring and early summer of 2000, irradiation of food made national headlines in major newspapers. Electron-beam-irradiated beef patties were introduced to the marketplace by Huisken Meats to ensure that no viable Escherichia coli would exist in the products. Hawaii Pride used irradiation to rid papaya of pests before shipment to the mainland. In 2003, about 20 million lb of ground beef and papaya were treated by irradiation. The market for both of these products was growing at about 30–40% a year.
SureBeam Corp., created in 1999 as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Titan Corp., built electron-beam food irradiation facilities in Iowa and Hawaii and in March 2001 became a public company traded on NASDAQ. It proceeded to build food irradiation facilities in Brazil, Illinois, Texas, California, and Viet Nam. SureBeam owned most of the facilities completely, but in a couple of the facilities had only part ownership.
SureBeam signed ground beef manufacturing companies to exclusive contracts that required these companies to use its facilities for products they wanted irradiated. At one point, the company had 85% of the ground beef production capacity under contract. With the rapid expansion of facilities and exclusive contractual arrangements, SureBeam was considered to be the clear leader in food irradiation.
However, in January 2004, SureBeam filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The reasons for the demise of the company were several, including accounting concerns. However, I believe the overriding problem was that the overhead costs from building facilities and linear accelerators could not be supported by processing fees or sales of the accelerators. Less than 5% of the irradiation capacity was used, which was insufficient to cover the overhead costs.
Several assumptions led SureBeam to believe that the volume of irradiated foods would be much higher than it was. First, because large ground beef manufacturers signed exclusive processing agreements, it was assumed that they would actively promote their line of irradiated ground beef. Instead the companies basically just filled orders for irradiated ground beef. Second, the company thought it could establish a brand name that would be recognized by consumers who would then seek out products that carried the brand, but the SureBeam brand was never established with consumers.
Third, it was assumed that the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would amend their regulations to permit the use of irradiation on a broader range of foods and therefore a much larger volume of foods. However, nearly five years after petitions to permit the use of irradiation on ready-to-eat/multi-ingredient foods and several seafoods, FDA has not issued a final rule. AMS finally permitted irradiated ground beef in the School Lunch Program in June 2003 but delayed orders for the product until January 2004, which is long after schools have placed their orders for the remaining school year; hence, irradiated ground beef will not appear in schools until fall 2004. APHIS issued regulations in fall 2002 to permit the use of irradiation to meet phytosanitary quarantine requirements for fruits and vegetables imported into the United States, reflecting alternative treatment needs that will develop from the ban on methyl bromide. To date, no irradiated fruits and vegetables are being imported into the U.S. because of the cumbersome regulations; hence, the demand for linear accelerators is delayed until compliance with the regulations is accomplished.
So, does the demise of SureBeam signal the demise of food irradiation? Definitely not. The reasons for irradiating food have not gone away. The need to control E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, control Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods, extend shelf life of refrigerated products, and replace methyl bromide use on fruits and vegetables is still with us. While the volume of irradiated food has been reduced since the demise of SureBeam, there still are food products being irradiated by electron-beam, x-ray, and gamma irradiation. Food Technology Services, Inc. in Florida, CFC Logistics in Pennsylvania, Texas A&M University, and possibly others are actively irradiating food. The former SureBeam facilities will likely be bought and reopened to irradiate foods.
There is evidence that the interest in irradiating foods will continue to grow. At some time in the future, more foods will have federal approval to be irradiated. The recently created International Council on Food Irradiation (www.icfi.org) could familiarize more food companies with the benefits of irradiation. Active food irradiation research programs continue at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, Iowa State University, and Texas A&M. The New England Journal of Medicine (www.nejm.org) on April 29, 2004, published an article calling for physicians and allied health professionals to recommend irradiated foods particularly to populations with weakened immune systems. The American National CattleWomen (www.ancw.org) conducts food irradiation educational programs across the country. All of these activities suggest that the acceptance and volume of irradiated foods will certainly increase in the future.
With the demise of SureBeam, the volume of irradiated foods has decreased, but the future of irradiated foods is as bright as ever.
by Dennis G. Olson, a Professional Member of IFT, is Food Industry Consultant, 11530 Read Cl., Omaha, NE 68142, [email protected] .