Meat Irradiation Down…but not Out

The flow of irradiated ground beef into more U.S. supermarkets has stalled following the demise of SureBeam Corp. But insiders predict this setback is only temporary.
By declaring bankruptcy in January and closing four plants, including facilities in Sioux City, IA, and Glendale Heights, IL, San Diego-based SureBeam Corp. — formerly a leading food-irradiation provider — derailed the activities of many of its Midwest customers. Two other major irradiators, Mulberry, FL-based Food Technology Service Inc. and Quakertown, PA-based CFC Logistics Inc., picked up some of SureBeam’s business, but many other former SureBeam clients have put their irradiation plans on hold because of the costs and logistical difficulties associated with transporting meats — particularly fresh ground beef — to distant facilities.
Irradiated meat supplies drop
Irradiators use such technologies as electron beams, gamma rays, and X-rays to kill microbes and extend the shelf life of food products. However, approximately 3,200 supermarket locations carry irradiated meat, down from about 6,000 a year ago, analysts estimate. Products irradiated by SureBeam were being sold in more than 5,300 locations.
“SureBeam’s demise is a significant setback to the growth of irradiated beef and poultry,” says Trent Wakenight, educational program coordinator for The National Food Safety Toxicology Center at Michigan State University. “But there still is a significant amount of irradiated ground beef available, and Food Technology Service and CFC are starting to pick up the ball.”
Indeed, SureBeam’s departure may only be a temporary sector setback to the irradiation movement. Dennis Olson, an Omaha-based meat industry consultant and SureBeam’s former vice president for food technology, points to SureBeam’s 30- to 45-percent annual growth rate as proof that supermarket interest remains strong. SureBeam, he says, was crippled by expanding too quickly, and not from lackluster market demand.
“The company over built, and the overhead became too great,” Olson notes. “Our entire processing volume would have comprised less than half the capacity of a single plant. We needed to grow three-hundred to four-hundred percent to cover the overhead in the facilities.”
While he says there is “no momentum at all” in the irradiation sector, Olson predicts activity will eventually pick up, particularly if the former SureBeam facilities are resuscitated. “That could occur in three months or three years, but the technology is so powerful that it is not going to whither away,” Olson says.
Until then, competitors Food Technology Service and CFC Logistics should continue to benefit from SureBeam’s misfortunes. Richard Hunter, FTC president and chief executive officer, says his company “picked up a significant part of SureBeam’s customer base,” and estimates it is irradiating about half of the ground beef previously handled by SureBeam.
By offering a three-hour turnaround period for ground beef processing, FTC is able to compensate for the longer transport distances facing some customers, Hunter says. “Although you do have longer shipping times, most of our customers are finding that they have shorter irradiation times [some by several hours], so it actually may turn out to be a wash.”
CFC Logistics, which began its irradiation activities in January 2004, only picked up a small, undisclosed, number of former SureBeam customers, says Paul Moriarty, director of market development for CFC Logistics Irradiation Services. He states that many parties are waiting to see if the old SureBeam sites will be rekindled before they consider switching to new irradiators.
“The future of irradiated beef, while still good, is somewhat uncertain in terms of who is going to do the processing,” Moriarty notes. “Companies that have had their ground beef irradiated before are probably willing to stay with it. But it is unclear how many new businesses the technology will attract.”
In the meantime, irradiation volumes are stagnant. Huisken Meat Co. of Sauk Rapids Inc. in Minnesota, a former SureBeam customer, still is producing millions of pounds of irradiated products annually, but “demand has been flat since SureBeam’s demise,” says Cliff Albertson, general manager and chief operating officer. Albertson will not disclose the name of Huisken’s current irradiator.
New opportunities
New opportunities, however, are on the horizon. The sector still is waiting for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve a petition to extend food irradiation to ready-to-eat meat and poultry. And the use of irradiated meat in the USDA’s School Lunch program also is poised to grow.
Such expansion primarily will be driven by the food-safety concerns of retailers and foodservice operators, rather than from the public, notes Brian Dalziel, president and chief executive officer of Mitec Inc., a Cedar Rapids, IA-based manufacturer of irradiation machines.
“Our research shows that consumers are apathetic,” he says. “They won’t seek out, or avoid, irradiated items. Selling irradiation as a value-added product will fail.”
But with major meat companies, including Huisken, Omaha-based Omaha Steaks, and Marshall, MN-based The Schwan Food Co., committed to irradiated products, and others just waiting until a Midwest irradiation facility begins operating, growth prospects remain strong, notes Ronald F. Eustice, executive director of the Bloomington-based Minnesota Beef Council.
“Companies are just maintaining their marketshare now, and no one is actively promoting irradiation technology,” he adds. “But there will eventually be a breakthrough.” NP
Richard Mitchell is a Chicago-area freelance writer.
Technology sources contributing to this feature include:
• CFC Logistics, phone (215) 529-9522, fax (215) 529-9512, e-mail, or log visit
• Food Technology Service Inc., phone (863) 425-0039, fax (863) 425-5526, e-mail, or visit
• Mitec Inc., phone (319) 861-3164, or visit
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