"Success for any product is constrained when awareness is limited, and knowledge of irradiated ground beef is low, both among those in the industry and among consumers," concluded the authors of the latest study on this controversial technology. "This lack of awareness among consumers is not surprising, considering that most users did little to promote the product or to educate consumers about irradiated ground beef, but the lack of awareness in the trade was somewhat surprising."
The study, which looked at foodservice, retail and consumer attitudes about irradiation, was conducted by the National Cattleman's Beef Association (NCBA), Centennial, CO, on behalf of the Cattlemen's Beef Board. It was published some six months after Surebeam, an irradiation pioneer and major promoter of the process in the foodservice industry, declared bankruptcy.
The survey showed that even the slightest knowledge of irradiation gained during a 5-10-minute discussion of the technology convinced consumers to consider trying the product for home use as well as in a foodservice setting. The study also found that consumers, on the one hand, mistakenly think that they adhere to all safe handling and cooking procedures at home and, on the other, believe that ground beef for foodservice is already safe.
"If a consumer was not educated on the technology and the purpose of using irradiated group beef, he wasn't as willing to purchase it," said Elizabeth Dressler, NCBA director of product enhancement research about the group's latest analysis.
This conclusion, she said, is valuable to the foodservice supply chain as it ascertains whether or not to market irradiated ground beef to consumers.
The report determined that current users of irradiated beef displayed a positive attitude about the product. Moreover, even past users as well as knowledgeable non-users did not directly reject the product.
"In our previous study on consumer perceptions we found that many consumers were interested in finding out more about irradiation and being able to have the choice to purchase irradiated products in a retail setting. Many of them said they would purchase it now and then but they wouldn't purchase it every time because they felt they knew how to prepare ground beef and that the ground beef that is being offered today is safe as well," Dressler said during an interview with ID Access. She also pointed out that consumers were willing to check out irradiated ground beef in a foodservice setting.
The study cited a growing, rather than shrinking, market for irradiated ground beef but only "if there is more marketing to popularize the product and more education of those in the industry and consumers to explain the advantages of irradiated beef."
Despite the apparent benefits of irradiation, Jane Gibson, NCBA director of public relations, emphasized that under no circumstance should irradiation be considered the be all method of maintaining food safety.
"Irradiation is an added intervention which certainly removes a lot of pathogens that could lead to a potential food safety issue. But irradiation is not a silver bullet. It does not negate the necessity of applying all of the safe-handling and preparation procedures that a foodservice operator would use with any meat product, particularly ground meat," Gibson told ID Access.
Dressler added that the industry has been making significant strides in combating foodborne pathogens and removing their occurrences.
Just as consumers need to be educated about irradiation, the supply chain needs this knowledge as well, Gibson noted. "Much of the ground beef that is served in foodservice goes through very large chains. They have automated cooking systems to ensure that the ground beef patty is cooked to an internal temperature of 160 F. If ground beef is always cooked to a temperature of 160 F you have no problem with pathogens," she said.
DSRs are central to this learning process, Gibson observed, and they should remember that irradiated products may leave a plant with fewer pathogens but they still require safe handling and preparation procedures.
"DSRs need to equip themselves with the basic familiarity with the technology so that they can address the product, its features and benefits with their customers, and be ready to explain why this product may be more expensive and help their customer figure out whether they need to consider it," Gibson noted. "Consumer awareness can play a role in that. It's going to be a learning process for DSRs and then they're going to have to use that to educate their customers so that they can make an informed decision."
Dressler explained that once consumers and the foodservice industry become informed about irradiation "they should continue to remain positive about using that technology as one more intervention in the entire process to help ensure the safety of the product. This finding will be very valuable to the industry in determining whether it should offer consumers a choice."
Though the process has its naysayers, Dressler indicated that there are several food irradiators operating in the country today, with three of them dedicated to ground beef production and a fourth scheduled for completion by year's end.