Irradiated ground beef moving mainstream
Ann Merrill
Star Tribune

Published Apr 14, 2002

If irradiated ground beef sounds a bit spooky, a bit futuristic, think again.

You already might be eating it.

Two years after its national debut in Twin Cities grocery stores, irradiated ground beef is available at thousands of supermarkets across the country. It's the only ground beef served at Gluek's Restaurant & Bar in downtown Minneapolis and at Xcel Energy Center suites during Minnesota Wild hockey games. And in a move that could open the irradiation floodgates in the $115 billion fast-food industry, Edina-based International Dairy Queen has begun testing it at two Minnesota stores.

"This is historic," said Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council. "In two short years, we've grown from the zero to the point now where irradiated ground beef is expanding rapidly, led by several Minnesota firms."

The growing availability of irradiated ground beef gives many consumers confidence that the burgers they cook medium rare on the back-yard grill won't make them sick, and that the burgers slung by a teenage cook at a fast-food joint are safe.

Although opponents of irradiation, which kills bacteria, continue to question its safety, the process has received all the necessary government approvals and the support of several health organizations.

A growing number of companies with Minnesota ties are betting that one day irradiated ground beef will be as common as pasteurized milk. Hungry for growth and increased sales, they see irradiation as a way to improve the safety, reputation and shelf life of their products.

More than a taste test

Mary Lynne Cox, owner of the Dairy Queen in Hutchinson, agreed to be one of two national test sites for irradiated ground beef, which arrives at her store as frozen patties. "Anything I can do to feed my customers a healthy product makes sense," she said.

It's close to noon on a Thursday at Cox's Dairy Queen on Main Street. Senior citizens, workers, and mothers with young children filed in for lunch. Those buying burgers said they have few qualms about the ground beef.

"I was aware of [irradiation], but I don't have a problem with it. I had a burger here yesterday, too," said Craig Schmeling of Hutchinson.

"Taste is the most important," but the fact that the meat is irradiated is a plus, said Chris Guggemos, a frequent diner at the Dairy Queen. His friend, Mike Christensen, said he'd also consider buying irradiated ground beef at the grocery store so he could cook his burgers pink without worrying. (Most suppliers recommend cooking even irradiated meat to 140 to 160 degrees. Irradiating eliminates most bacteria, but the meat isn't bacteria-free.)

Although restaurants are not required by law to inform consumers that they're using irradiated ground beef, many do, although the word "irradiation" is used sparingly.

At the Dairy Queen, stickers on doors, employees' shirts and the large menu board carry the logo of SureBeam, the company that irradiates its ground beef. Dairy Queen customers also receive brochures that explain irradiation. In search of market research, Dairy Queen also is giving a free Blizzard to customers in Hutchinson and Spicer who participate in a telephone survey about their burger-buying experience.

The survey, at the Spicer store in early April, indicated that only about a third of customers knew that DQ's hamburgers were irradiated. About one in five said they thought they would purchase fewer hamburgers if they were irradiated.

Dairy Queen spokesman Dean Peters said there has been very little negative reaction. Sales at the two stores actually have gone up, driven in part by recent promotions, he said.

The company is taking a crawl-before-you-run approach to irradiated burgers, Peters said. "We're considering expanding to six or eight stores around the area, but have not made any rollout decisions" for the chain's nearly 6,000 stores, he said.

Food-service operators generally have not sought much attention about the use of irradiated ground beef. They're unsure of consumer reaction: Will customers, suspicious of irradiation, shun -- or worse yet, picket -- their business? Or will guests applaud the move as an effort at improving food safety?

Gluek's, for example, remains on the fence. The restaurant began selling irradiated ground beef several months ago, but has held off putting any notice on its menu because of concerns about consumer acceptance. "I expect we'll get there," said David Owen Jones, executive chef.

How irradiation works

Ground beef processors, whether they sell irradiated meat to food-service operators or grocers, send their meat in refrigerated trucks to irradiation facilities, such as the SureBeam plant in Sioux City, Iowa.

The ground beef, already in its final packaging, is unloaded and put on a conveyor belt. High-energy electrons are focused into a beam and scanned across the meat for a few seconds, disrupting DNA chains of bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli O157:H7.

Irradiation has been used for nearly 20 years on food products such as wheat flour, potatoes and spices, and on medical supplies. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the process for beef in 1997, followed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2000.

The government approvals paved the way for companies such as San Diego-based Titan Corp. to begin ground beef irradiation under its SureBeam brand. The electron-beam technology has received support from the American Medical Association, World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It does not use radioactive materials or leave any radioactive residue.

The flexibility in cooking irradiated meat is a big appeal, said Mike Harper, executive chef at St. Paul-based Wildside Caterers, which provides food for the suites at Minnesota Wild games.

"We wanted to serve a hamburger, but if we cook ground beef well done and then put it in the suites, it becomes a pitiful product," he said. Now, with irradiated ground beef, "we don't have to cook it to death," so it holds up better in catering.

In September, Harper was serving two or three dozen burgers to hockey fans in the suites. Now orders range from 10 to 20 dozen burgers. "That tells me that people want them," he said. Menus in the suites alert guests to the SureBeam brand.

The growing acceptance of irradiated ground beef is a boon to Minneapolis-based W.W. Johnson Meat Co., a 56-year-old company that for the past couple of decades has specialized in supplying ground beef to food-service customers.

"As a small, family-owned company, we're always searching for new technologies or new niches that help us differentiate ourselves from larger competitors," said Bruce Elford, sales manager.

The company has about a dozen customers who are buying irradiated ground beef, representing about 2 percent of sales. "I'd like to see it at 25 percent in the next couple years," Elford said. The main advantage of irradiation is food safety, but it also extends shelf life, he said. Fresh ground beef has a shelf life of 15 to 18 days. Irradiated, it's 30 to 40 days.

Irradiation adds a couple of cents to the cost of each burger, about 10 to 15 cents per pound.

In the grocery aisle

There's movement in grocery stores too, where about a dozen supermarkets in the Peoria, Ill., market are testing irradiated fresh ground beef. The move is significant because about 80 percent of retail ground beef is sold fresh, and until recently the only irradiated ground beef being sold was in the frozen meat case.

The fresh ground beef is being sold under the Fairview Farms label next to regular ground beef in a case that features educational materials, said Gary Rhodes, spokesman for Kroger. "It's too early" to gauge consumer acceptance, he said.

The FDA requires labeling of irradiated meat sold to consumers or to restaurants, even though restaurants don't have to tell customers that they're using it.

Kroger gets its irradiated meat from Excel Corp., a leading U.S. beef processor and a subsidiary of Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc. "Sales are meeting our expectations. We've been doing in-store demos and will go back and do consumer research on what they thought of it," said Mark Klein, Cargill spokesman.

Excel intends to install irradiation facilities directly in its plants in Texas and Nebraska. "We're giving consumers a choice, just like what lean point they want to buy," Klein said.

Some, however, don't want that choice.

When grocery stores in Peoria began selling the fresh irradiated ground beef two months ago, several groups protested, including Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader.

Irradiation opponents have raised red flags about the safety of irradiation, health problems tied to today's large-scale farming practices and concerns that irradiation will allow processors to become lax on cleanliness standards.

Those who support irradiation say consumer education and sampling is key. "Last year we served 960 pounds of irradiated ground beef, a toothpick at a time, at the Minnesota State Fair," said Eustice, of the Minnesota Beef Council. The local trade group has signed a two-year contract with SureBeam to spread the irradiation word to the beef industry in other states, such as South Carolina. At a recent session in Texas, representatives from Burger King were in attendance.

An early adopter was Huisken Meats, based in Chandler, Minn. The company, a unit of Sara Lee Co., was the first meat processor to sell irradiated ground beef in grocery stores.

Beginning with about 84 stores here two years ago, the company now supplies frozen ground beef to about 2,500 stores, said Cliff Albertson, manager of sales and marketing.

Huisken sends its ground beef to SureBeam's facility in Sioux Falls for irradiation but doesn't rule out adding its own in-house irradiation facility to its processing plant in Sauk Rapids. "It could eventually happen. It's a function of volume," Albertson said.

Huisken sells much of its ground beef under its own BeSure brand, but also packages products under other brands for customers such as Schwan's.

Marshall-based Schwan's began selling irradiated ground beef products two years ago. Sales are higher in 2002 than 2001, said John Nabholz, corporate communications director. (The privately held company does not release sales figures.)

"The issue that drove us was food safety," he said, noting that selling raw meat brings risk to any company. "This is one tool of many tied to safety and quality. We haven't noticed any negative backlash. After all, this is the technology that the mail service turned to after Sept. 11 in a time of trouble."

-- Ann Merrill is at