January 30, 2006
Irradiation Resumes as SureBeam Plant Reopens
Irradiation is back. David Corbin, chair of Corbin & Co., an equity-investment and fund-management firm, acquired the license for the SureBeam electronic irradiation technology and the SureBeam plant in Sioux City, Iowa, and reopened the plant late last month as SADEX Corp.
SADEX is currently irradiating feed and feed ingredients but plans to expand into food products -- principally beef, pork and turkey ground meat products -- in the near future, Corbin said in an interview with Feedstuffs. The opportunities "are very, very exciting for both animal consumables (feed) and human consumables (food)," as feed and food processors respond to safety and wholesomeness issues, he said.
Feed likely will be SADEX’s biggest line, Corbin said, pointing to university work showing that irradiation kills bacteria in feed, creating safer feed and prompting faster-growing, healthier animals. He said the plant is irradiating feed for a number of commercial feed manufacturers in the Midwest and can do so efficiently and quickly. He noted that the plant can handle different feed products -- from blood plasma to complete feeds -- and is running 40,000 lb. per day, with expectations to ramp up soon to 160,000 lb. per day.
At the same time, the company is negotiating contracts with meat processors, he said. Corbin & Co., headquartered in Ft. Worth, Texas, was an investor in The Titan Corp., which launched SureBeam.
Irradiation was heralded as a critical food processing technology to kill Escherichia coli 0157:H7, Listeria, Salmonella and other pathogens when SureBeam introduced the technology in the late 1990s.
Huisken Meats became the first processor to put irradiated beef patties in supermarkets (Feedstuffs, May 23, 2000), and American Dairy Queen became the first restaurant to serve irradiated beef burgers (Feedstuffs, July 22, 2002). By 2004, fresh and frozen beef patties, ground beef and hamburgers were available in thousands of restaurants and supermarkets across the U.S.
However, SureBeam, which Titan took public in 2001, didn't entertain feed irradiation, overbuilt for its market in food irradiation and spent too much money and time promoting irradiation to consumers. It was closed in bankruptcy proceedings in 2004 (Feedstuffs, Jan. 19, 2004).
Ron Eustice, chief executive officer of the Minnesota Beef Council and a leading advocate for irradiation, said the concept is rapidly capturing ground. He told Feedstuffs that the fruit and vegetable industry is moving to irradiation to disinfect for insects as an alternative to methyl bromide -- which is being discontinued industry-wide due to its environmental hazard and toxicity to workers -- as well as its ability to extend shelf life. Consequently, consumers will become far more aware of the benefits of irradiation than when it was limited to beef patties and ground beef, he said.
At the same time, the basic infrastructure for marketing irradiated beef and other meat and poultry has remained in place, he said, noting that Omaha Steaks and Schwan Food Co. have continued to use irradiation at other facilities. Eustice also said irradiation is catching on rapidly worldwide, reporting that 21 plants are being opened across Asia to kill fruit flies on fruits and vegetables.
The Food & Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture approved irradiation for fresh and frozen meat and poultry (Feedstuffs, Dec. 8, 1997, and March 8, 1999) and is on track to be approved for ready-to-eat products such as luncheon meats. Irradiated food products must be identified, and Corbin said food products that go through the Sioux City plant can affix the former SureBeam seal or the new SADEX seal.
June 19, 2006
Irradiation’s “speed” Achieves Feed, Food Safety
It’s a shot of electrons moving almost at the speed of light, and its opportunities range from making feed and food safer to making baseball helmets and football shoulder pads harder.
That is irradiation, and it’s being resumed at the former SureBeam plant in Sioux City, Iowa, primarily to eliminate pathogens in animal feed and ground beef and to sterilize veterinary instruments.
On a recent walk-through of the plant, including the irradiation chamber itself, Feedstuffs was shown how the plant -- now owned by Sadex Corp. and named Sadex -- works.
Sadex president and chief operating officer Harlan E. Clemmons pointed to how the plant has two sides: an unprocessed receiving side and a processed shipping side.
Once a product is received, its code and count are compared with a “Specific Product Supplemental Agreement” (SPSA) -- an agreement between the customer and Sadex setting the dosage range -- to determine irradiation level, Clemmons said, explaining that if there is any variation between SPSA and the product received -- e.g., a customer ordered a different dosage than in the SPSA or a product is received in different packaging or package size the plant contacts the customer for clarification.
Everything is received in its final packaging from commercial-sized bags and boxes to consumer-sized, individual packages, he said. The packages are loaded onto a conveyor line, sent through the irradiation chamber to the processed side and loaded onto trucks to be shipped.
He said a “dosimetry” is performed at the beginning, middle and end of the run to verify that the SPSA dosage range is being met, and the chamber continuously reads dosage levels and defaults and shuts down if levels get out of parameters.
Clemmons said operations are an in-and-out process, and the plant typically can handle 40,000 lb. of feed per hour and 7,000-60,000 lb. of ground beef per hour, depending on the packaging, with a normal turnaround taking one to two hours. The 16,000 sq. ft. plant can handle an estimated 150 million pounds of meat, poultry and fresh fruits and vegetables per year.
Quality of Life
In the irradiation chamber -- in lay terms -- an electronic beam generated by common electricity is converted into an electron stream that is loaded into a “gun” and accelerated to 99.99% of the speed of light, with the electrons shot into the product. The process is known as electron-beam irradiation, or “cold pasteurization.”
The process does not alter product qualities, including nutrition and, for food, taste and texture, but it does kill or render sterile all pathogens, with a normal one to two kilogray stream producing a four to five log reduction in pathogens, Clemmons said.
He explained that sterilization prevents pathogens from reproducing, which means they can’t make an animal or human sick if consumed, and a four to five log reduction achieves a 99.9999-99.99999% reduction in pathogens.
The plant is refrigerated at 29°F, keeping fresh products fresh and frozen products frozen. Clemmons said the plant has irradiated ice cream without raising the product’s temperature more than 1°F.
Clemmons said the plant can irradiate complete feeds but primarily treats feed ingredients. He said there are extra benefits in irradiating feed products, including, based on work at several universities, a faster-growing, healthier animal that needs fewer or no antibiotics. Irradiating colostrum, for instance, represents a major opportunity for the dairy industry, he said.
Irradiating poultry feed would kill salmonella, eliminating the need to treat poultry feed with formaldehyde, which disrupts chicken weight gain, he said. Irradiating bedding and feed for research animals would prevent introduction of pathogens from outside sources, he added.
Irradiating meat and poultry offer additional benefits, he said, including extending shelf life two to three times what’s normal, even longer in some cases, with some trials extending fresh beef shelf life to 45-60 days, fresh chicken to 21 days and fresh pork to 120 days.
Irradiation “extends and improves the lives of animals and humans,” he said.
Feedstuffs was in the plant last month on the day it received its first load of ground beef since reopening as Sadex in January.
That customer was one of the plant’s biggest customers and irradiation’s major supporters in the past.
Feed, Food, Plastics
Clemmons said the future of the plant falls largely into three categories: one-third feed and feed ingredients, one-third ground beef and other foods and one-third animal care products and pet food and treats such as dog bones and pig’s ears.
Also, once the Food & Drug Administration approves irradiation for ready-to-eat products, bagged salads and luncheon meats “are on the horizon,” he said, and although not part of the company’s business plan, irradiation can be used to harden plastics made from corn and soybeans for sports.
The plant is inspected by FDA, the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Food Safety & Inspection Service and Iowa Department of Public Health. Clemmons said he can promote electron-beam irradiation and Sadex because of the substantial science and technology involved. “I have a lot of confidence in my plant,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in my system.”
The plant currently runs five days per week on a six-person shift, which achieves approximately 40% of the plant’s potential volume. It likely can expand to 30-40 people working three shifts, and Clemmons said the company probably would consider construction of a second plant once Sioux City goes to double-shifts.
(Volume 45, No. 7)
New Life For Meat Irradiation?: The Potential for Multiple E-beam Facilities may Restart Irradiation Usage for Ground Beef
There's a new company in the microbial control industry that plans to reinvigorate the use of irradiation for ground beef and chicken. It's counting on a more informed public, and it is ready to promote the benefits of the technology's ability to reduce the microbial load on those products and make them even safer for consumers. The company's debut may signal a resumption of the upward curve for irradiation of meat and poultry that looked so promising just a few years ago; and then took a crippling hit when the high-profile SureBeam Corp., owned by Titan Corp., sought protection in bankruptcy in January 2004, and never reemerged.
The new company is Sadex Corp., Sioux City, Iowa, and its principal, David Corbin, purchased the assets of SureBeam in June 2005, outfitted the Sioux City, Iowa, irradiation facility with the SureBeam technology and uses the SureBeam electronic-beam (e-beam) method. He was able to tap the expertise of Bruce Miller, Ph.D., who has a consulting company, EBM LLC, and had been vice president for technology development for SureBeam. The Sadex e-beam irradiation facility is in operation and ready for increased volume, and Corbin is considering a second site in Texas. Corbin is an entrepreneur and a believer in irradiation's benefits and potential, but also a realist about the technology and its potential in the meat industry.
Sadex does feature some procedural changes to make the technology more efficient, and they deal with the material handling systems, Corbin tells Meat Processing. "It took long periods to time to set up new runs, and we've cut set-up times down considerably. If you're not getting product in front of the beam, you're not making money. The new procedures make it easy to set conveyor speeds and get the load going on the machine." He says that set-up time between loads is down to 12 minutes from the earlier 45 minutes. "We can handle many more loads a day now," he says.
"David is really thinking about the business aspects of this [venture], and â€¦[is] more realistic about the marketing of it than we at SureBeam were," Miller tells Meat Processing. Miller, who has written a book on the technology, "Electronic Irradiation of Foods," published by Springer, says that he's found from his research that food irradiation is the most studied food processing technology that exists and that "even the World Health Organization says that food irradiation is safe [for food] up to incredible doses, so much higher than would be normally used in meat processing."
Irradiation application is measured in kiloGrays (kGy). In its proposed rule in the Feb. 24, 1999, Federal Register, USDA proposed that the maximum dose of irradiation for frozen ground beef be set at 7kGy. The maximum dose the industry uses is 4.5kGy for ground beef and 3kGy for chicken. "Food is most often irradiated commercially to extend shelf-life, eliminate insect pests, or reduce numbers of pathogenic microorganisms. Food irradiation for these purposes is practiced in many countries, including the United States," the Federal Register notice explained.
Cliff Albertson, general manager and COO of Huisken Meat Co./A.J.&R Co., Chandler, Minn., one of the pioneers in irradiation of ground beef, tells Meat Processing that by combining Ecolab's Sanova antimicrobial process, which is sprayed on all of Huisken's beef trimmings and irradiation, the company currently accomplishes up to a 6.5 log reduction of bacteria on its product, "essentially 95 percent." The Sanova treatment gives between one and 1.5 logs reduction, and "with irradiation we get five logs more," Albertson explains.
Albertson has had strong support in his pro-irradiation position from Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council, who is an advocate of irradiation. Eustice travels internationally promoting irradiation for meat and produce. Mangos coming out of India and papaya coming out of Brazil and much more is being irradiated. Some of this is to replace a toxic chemical that is making produce workers ill, but irradiation is making these foods safer, too, he comments. "I'm aware of 21 irradiation facilities that are proposed or under construction around the world. Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are among the countries using irradiation, according to Eustice.
A few upscale retailers had been selling irradiated meat and more had been at the cusp of adding the ground beef that could offer the promise of safer hamburgers, at least for test purposes, to a public was fearful of E. coli O157:H7 when we last covered this subject in 2002. Suddenly, with the demise of SureBeam, processors and retailers were left without sufficient irradiation facilities to get the job done economically. Most of the marginally committed firms abandoned it. But for the principals of three large companies, the Schwan Food Co., the Marshall, Minn.-headquartered home delivery service, Omaha Steaks, the Internet meat retailer headquartered in Omaha, Neb., and Colorado Boxed Beef, Auburndale, Fla., which had committed to selling irradiated ground meat, going backwards wasn't an option. Though SureBeam was gone, there were still irradiation services offered by Food Technology Services, Mulberry, Fla., and at Texas A&M University. Truckloads of ground beef products began heading to both facilities.
"We actually started irradiating our ground beef in the fall of 2000," Beth Weiss, Omaha Steaks' corporate communications director, told Meat Processing. Bruce Simon, president and fifth generation member of the family owned company, was the catalyst. "Bruce feels very strongly that we want to do anything that we can possibly do to insure the food safety of all of our products. Of course, ground beef is the one that has the greatest risk." She noted that Simon understood that thorough cooking kills any surface bacteria, but with ground beef, the surface meat is ground and moved inside, creating its own environment to harbor problems. "He wanted to start irradiating the ground beef because he did not want anyone to ever have an E. coli scare based on something that they ingested from Omaha Steaks.
Weiss agrees that the decision became more complicated when the "only-two-hours-from-here" SureBeam, Sioux City, Iowa, facility closed. To find an alternative operation that had the capacity available that the company needed, Omaha Steaks began shipping its ground beef to Mulberry, Fla., and then bringing it back. "It adds about five days to the total process," Weiss adds.
What is Irradiation?
Irradiation comes from ionization, that is, energy-activated electronic particles, which are able to forge a break in a bacteria's DNA, either killing it or crippling its ability to multiply and grow. Bruce Miller explained it to Meat Processing.
Electronic ionization happens every day in our lives, Miller says, from using a microwave oven to what happens in an ordinary neon light bulb. To illuminate a neon bulb, "there's a electronic discharge and it ionizes the neon gas. When the electrons fall back into their atomic orbit they give off energy and light," he says, adding that this level of ionization is simply one in an accelerated progression of particle activity. "The particles we use for food irradiation are quite energetic. You don't encounter them naturally, and you reach them as you work your way up in the spectrum toward the ultra violet range. You start being able to ionize x-rays and gamma rays [from Cobalt-60] quite easily." It is the ionization that does the damage to the DNA, he explains.
By 1992, irradiation using e-beam, Cobalt, or x-ray had been approved by both the Food and Drug Administration and USDA to control Salmonella. By 2000, both agencies had approved the technology for use on raw beef. It's been six years, and the technology that could have been in place and helping save lives is still waiting for the door to the industry to open wide. Meat Processing celebrated the opportunities it promised in 2002 (February, page 18), yet things happened to preclude that occurring. Little of the nation's ground beef or chicken supply is protected today by this proven anti-microbial technology. Richard Hunter, president and CEO of Food Technology Service, estimates that approximately 18-20 million pounds of ground beef and poultry are being irradiated in the United States today. "We are in excess of 10 million pounds ourselves," he adds.
Numerous factors contributed to irradiation's continuing relatively small share of the antimicrobial treatment segment of the meat and poultry markets. Logistics, trashing by ill-informed activist organizations, and resistance from processors and some industry organizations that anticipated having irradiated beef in the meat case with regular ground beef would give the irradiated product a perceived premium position and cost.
The highest of the hurdles for broad use of the technology was logistics. Food Technology Service, a Cobalt-60 facility, is in Florida. An e-beam facility built by SureBeam was in Sioux City, Iowa. There were some research opportunities at Kansas State University, and Texas A&M irradiated product, too. Irradiation facilities are expensive to erect because of the thick interior barriers they need to ensure that the radiation is contained. There are perhaps close to 40 irradiation e-beam, Cobalt-60, and x-ray facilities in the United States today and many others worldwide. They have been sterilizing medical equipment, animal feed, and spices primarily and didn't have the set up or capacity for meat. SureBeam began to build more facilities for meat irradiation in other locations for the convenience of meat processors, but in the end, there were not enough meat processors that were willing to take that leap of faith in their consumers.
John Stossel, CBS news journalist who has brought down some popular icons with his in-your-face approach to reporting, addresses the myth about food irradiation in his book "Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel â€“ Why Everything You Know is Wrong," an expansion of a television program he'd presented on CBS-TV. One of his myths deals with irradiation:
"MYTH: Radioactivity is deadly; keep it away from food!
TRUTH: Food irradiation saves lives."
The "me-too" popular media gobbled up all of the negative and scientifically unsupported material the technology's activist opponents could create, and spread it in a thick fog over the existing science. One of those groups, Food & Water, was among the most vocal. For his book, Stossel interviewed the group's founder Dr. Walter Burnstein, an osteopath with a family practice, and his associate Michael Colby. Food & Water claimed that a credible study in India reported that irradiated food has caused "testicular tumors, chromosomal abnormalities, kidney damage, and cancer end birth defects." Stossel, who had telephoned the author of the study, confronted the two with the author's denial of the truth of their claims. They said the scientist was unable to stretch her results to the conclusions they had reached because she was one of the "pure scientists and she doesn't' want to make that break."
Stossel goes on to quote the Centers for Disease and Control statistics that if 50 percent of American meat were irradiated nearly "a million cases of bacterial infections could be avoided and 350 lives could be saved every year." The American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association have also endorsed irradiation of meat and poultry, Hunter says.
But meat industry officials, fearful of consumer backlash if they embraced irradiation still sit in the wings and watch. Other antimicrobial tools have been developed, to be sure, but few have the power of irradiation to make ground beef safe. Those few companies that believed in the technology and have taken the plunge, included a small Florida restaurateur who insisted that the chicken he served be irradiated so he wouldn't have to worry about safety.
The ride from here should be an exciting one for Sadex, Food Technology Services, and anyone else who decides to jump on board. Imagine a possible 350 lives saved if processors embrace irradiation! Interestingly enough, the opponents of irradiation have made many of the same doomsday arguments that opponents of pasteurizing milk made decades ago. Today, most milk is pasteurized. Perhaps in the not to distant future, all ground beef will be irradiated too...and it should be.
|Meat & Poultry,
July 1, 2006
(Volume 52, No. 7)
Resurrecting Irradiation: SureBeam's Demise Spells Opportunity for Sadex
Not that long ago, Titan Corp., the San Diego-based defense and technology contractor, and its subsidiary, SureBeam Corp., seemed to have finally found a way to succeed in the food safety arena with its irradiation technology. By 2000, the company saw a once-skeptical marketplace begin to embrace its service, earning the business of a dozen or so big-time food companies, including names like Cargill, IBP, Huisken Meats, Omaha Steaks, Tyson Foods and Kraft. In March 2001, SureBeam raised $67 million in an initial public offering.
Later in 2001, however, public acceptance began to waver when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled that food "treated with irradiation" had to be labeled as such. No longer could SureBeam’s customers sugar-coat product labels with phrases like "electronically pasteurized." The financial tide began shifting as retailers pulled irradiated ground beef from meatcases and consumer confidence in the technology floundered. The company countered with an aggressive and expensive marketing campaign, which eventually was blamed for the company losing $74 million in 2001. In 2002, things went from bad to worse for the company as consumer acceptance continued waning and reports questioning the companyâ€™s accounting practices surfaced. Reported losses topped $35 million for the year. SureBeamâ€™s stock prices also took a hit when it and Titan severed financial ties. In the midst of the financial downturn, SureBeam’s top executives stepped away in 2003.
SureBeam Corp. filed for bankruptcy in January 2004, marking the end of what many thought was a surefire business model. Titan Corp. continues selling irradiation equipment throughout the world, but the assets for its SureBeam subsidiary went on the block. The company’s two irradiation facilities in Illinois and Iowa were closed and its employees were laid off. David Corbin, president of Corbin & Co., an investment firm, and C.E.O. of Fort Worth, Texasbased Sadex Corp., saw the end coming well before the company tanked. Now, Corbin is leading a team of 13 investors making up Sadex, with the goal of bringing SureBeam back from the proverbial ashes.
Operating out of a Sioux City, Iowa, facility previously owned by SureBeam, Sadex Corp. began irradiating for paying customers this past December. The factory has been renovated to improve the conveying system and enhance efficiencies. Corbin retained Harlan Clemmons, the former plant manager at SureBeam’s Sioux City plant, as the president and C.O.O. of Sadex. Clemmons also owns 8 percent of the company. The facility has the capacity to irradiate 40,000 pounds of product per hour, but to date, Sadex has processed about 120,000 pounds on its busiest day. The company currently employs six full-time workers, and the plant could easily accommodate a larger staff once the business warrants it.
Corbin says his company’s original offer was for the SureBeam plants in Glendale Heights, Ill., and Sioux City. He says the Illinois facility was the least desirable property because it was poorly designed and its proximity to potential customers. "When we looked closer, Sioux City was the lowest hanging fruit," Corbin says.
The Glendale Heights facility, which is only about four years old, had the potential to draw customers such as Sara Lee and Kraft. However, Chicago was seen as more of a "processed foods town," where irradiation wouldn’t be as sought after as the agriculture-rich area around Sioux City. Therefore, the offer was made to only buy the Iowa plant, and the Glendale Heights irradiation facility was ultimately dismantled as part of the agreement. "We didn’t want any competition from a facility similar to ours in our territory," Corbin says.
Corbin was attracted to the business’ basic structure. "The process is simple; the technology isn’t," he says. Products come in on trucks, are unloaded onto a conveyor, run through the irradiation process, and then loaded back on the truck and off it goes. "That part is simple, but when you start talking about the irradiation process itself, it gets very complex," says Corbin.
The company’s primary target as it ramps up operations is processing human-consumable products and recapturing some of the customers forced to ship products to Mulberry, Fla., where one of the country’s only other irradiation facilities is operated by Food Technology Service, Inc. Like SureBeam, F.T.S. also encountered business challenges the last couple of years, but it appears to be turning the corner. F.T.S. reported revenues of $1.7 million in 2005, an increase of 29 percent over its 2004 revenue of $1.32 million. Its 2005 profits were $138,849 compared to losses totaling $105,731in 2004. F.T.S. officials might be looking over their shoulders with Sadex vying for a portion of the irradiated foods market.
Avoiding SureBeam’s Fate
Corbin says SureBeam’s demise was the culmination of an inflexible business model, which was hamstrung by layers of corporate bureaucracy, and an inability to adjust to marketplace resistance. SureBeam’s focus was also less diverse and targeted only human consumables. "Conversely, we see ourselves as being in the broader agricultural business," says Corbin. This includes animal feed and pet food as well as food for human consumption.
"SureBeam thought it was just going to show up and companies like Cargill, IBP and McDonald’s would all be on board," says Corbin. As it turned out, the public, and therefore the industry, was reluctant to endorse a process perceived as being somewhat veiled and associated with radiation.
In reviewing SureBeam’s books, Corbin saw some red flags immediately. For example, he says SureBeam spent 70 percent of its marketing budget targeting the retail market while only 10 percent of its revenue was derived from the retail segment. Meanwhile, 60 percent of the company’s revenue came from direct sales and animal feed segments, where SureBeam spent just 10 percent of its marketing budget. The overriding theme seemed to be to making the brand bigger than the company. "They wanted the average guy to know ‘SureBeam,’ at whatever the cost would be," Corbin says. "The money they spent was staggering."
Another downfall Corbin identified was its top-heavy corporate structure. Today, most business decisions involve a phone call between Clemmons and Corbin that last less than five minutes, because there are no corporate layers to contend with. "We have shareholders, but those shareholders are long-term, patient people who realize this is a process. We don’t have to answer to Wall Street," Corbin says.
He also learned through his research about the previous regime that too many important players were too far removed from the company’s technology. "One of the problems with SureBeam was that they had salespeople who never went to their plants," says Corbin.
"They’d have salespeople sitting down with customers and no one had seen the technology in person."
As Sadex’s C.E.O., Corbin’s role is to empower the people at the plant level to do what is best for the company. "Iâ€™m a finance guy, not a technology expert," he says. "Too often, corporations will tell its people what to do …” they are the experts and they should be telling me that."
So far, Sadex has regained about half of the business SureBeam had before its bankruptcy. Schwan’s sends its ground beef to the plant, and Corbin hopes to regain the firms, including Huisken Meats, Omaha Steaks and others. When SureBeam folded, Omaha Steaks began shipping its products to the next closest facility, which is F.T.S. in Florida, where cobalt irradiation is utilized as opposed to electron-beam irradiation, which is the technology Sadex adopted from SureBeam. The new company still markets the SureBeam technology under the Sadex company name.
"The meat and poultry industry is one of the biggest ‘me-too’ industries in America," Corbin says. "What we’ve got here becomes a little scary because this is a business where there are just two or three (processing) companies using it and the big guys probably aren’t going to adopt it any time too soon," which Corbin says is OK with him.
The survival of Sadex and of irradiation technology doesnâ€™t depend on the big companies’ endorsements. "We provide premium protection for premium products," Corbin says. Processors come to Sadex with their premium offerings wanting to add an extra layer of food safety protection, while adding shelf life, he says. Depending on many factors, Sadex is able to offer irradiation services to meat processors for as little as five cents per pound. The plan is to target those premium processors first and slowly branch out.
The groundswell of support for irradiation is growing, Corbin says. He says it is the medium-size companies, with annual sales between $100 million to $300 million, which have the most to gain from its services. "Especially if they rely on two or three clients," Corbin says. "If one of them walks out (because of a food safety issue), they are going to have a real problem."
Moving forward, Sadex’s success depends on avoiding the pitfalls Sure-Beam encountered when its initial success created obstacles to effectively running the business. "I believe a good company and technology is made great by a more simple approach," Corbin says. "This is where corporate philosophy meets entrepreneurship."
|Western Livestock Journal,
April 3, 2006
Irradiated Ground Beef: Past, present and future
Irradiation made its way into the beef industry six years ago with the intent of strengthening food safety, which in turn enhances consumer trust in beef. The initial introduction of irradiated beef received much talk within the industry, but since then little has been heard. However, Ron Eustice, the executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council who was not only directly involved with introducing irradiated beef into the marketplace, but is also involved with irradiation of virtually all fresh food products, is pleased with the direction and acceptance irradiated products are receiving.
“We have completed six very successful years,” said Eustice.
The Schwan Food Company and Omaha Steaks currently irradiate 100 percent of their ground beef. Others who market irradiated beef include Colorado Boxed Beef, Huisken Meats and others. However, Eustice said there has been problems in the process. The major glitch slowing down the marketing of irradiated products since its introduction is due in large part to irradiated facilities going bankrupt, such as SureBeam in January, 2004, which was located in Sioux City, IA. Even with the failures, there are still a few investors who think that the food irradiation market will expand and become financially successful.
David Corbin, chairman of Sadex, which bought SureBeam, agrees that the irradiation of meat received a lot of attention when it first was introduced, but attention has waned. “The biggest thing that made it disappear was SureBeam went bankrupt,” said Corbin. “A large number of producers in the Midwest used Sioux City to get their products irradiated.”
Eustice said irradiation is a process of utilizing high energy radiation to kill microbes in food that cause food borne infections, as well as extends shelf life. The high energy rays of irradiation directly damage the DNA of organisms living in the beef. The energy induces cross linkages and other changes that make the organism unable to grow or reproduce. Irradiation can easily kill 99 percent of the organisms, but has the potential to destroy 99.999 percent of the possible 10,000 organisms.
Destroying pathogens that lend to food borne infections is essential, considering the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 76 million cases and 323,000 hospitalizations annually. According to the CDC, five pathogens account for most severe illnesses: Salmonella, E. coli O157, Campylobacter, Listeria and Toxoplasma. These five alone account for 3.5 million infections, 33,000 hospitalizations and 1,600 deaths each year. Eustice said this alone is his motivation to push irradiated beef.
“Nearly two out of every 1,000 hamburgers still carry E. coli,” said Eustice. “We have an obligation to provide consumers the safest product possible. The people who think we have this thing won are wrong. As long as children are getting sick, it is not won.”
Eustice said irradiation is just another step geared towards making beef safer. He said the task is not finished until U.S. beef producers can ensure consumers with nearly 100 percent certainty that they are not going to sick. He said at the present time irradiated beef is the safest.
“It is the safest ground beef in the marketplace today, endorsed by virtually every health organization, and scientific group in the world,” said Eustice.
He predicts more manufacturers will trust in irradiated beef to prevent food safety lawsuits. “I anticipate litigation similar to the Jack in the Box suit will encourage other marketers to get on board,” said Eustice.
“Irradiation is a marketer’s best defense, which will stand up in a court of law. If a manufacturer sells products to consumers without using every available resource then it’s liable … it’s that simple.”
Eustice said major food processors have fewer worries because they have “big time” lawyers, but smaller processors have everything to lose. ”It’s the shark and the guppy concept. If a small to medium processor has a recall they are going to be liable and very vulnerable.”
Irradiation does not come without skeptics. Some critics of irradiated foods have worried about potential long-term health effects. USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, however, have deemed irradiated food safe.
Dennis Burson, an extension meat specialist at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, said SureBeam may have faltered its first time out in part because people had trouble accepting irradiated meat. Concerns could have included generally higher prices for the treated meat, worries about whether irradiation hurts product quality and taste.
Corbin said the irradiation process at his plant could add 6 cents to 12 cents per pound to the cost of ground beef. “You're going to pay a little bit more,” Corbin said. “So the consumer has to decide if it is worth 6 cents to 12 cents more for me to feed my family the safest, highest quality product that is out there.”
Richard Hunter, CEO of Food Technology and Service Inc., a long lasting company that has specialized in irradiation since 1992 said cost is becoming a non-issue as new technology is allowing for more efficient irradiation.
As far as taste, Eustice said more than 60 taste tests conducted by the American National Cattlewomen in more than 20 states concludes consumers love the taste of irradiated ground beef.
Hunter said irradiated beef should not taste any differently than non-irradiated beef. ”If irradiation is done properly it doesn’t affect taste,” said Hunter. “We can’t sacrifice taste for safety, consumers won’t go for that, and I don’t blame them.”
Direct marketers such as Omaha Steaks might use irradiation as an extra measure of safety, but such meat may not be widely accepted by shoppers any time soon, Burson said.
Harlan Clemmons, President and general manager of Sadex, said some people might hesitate to buy irradiated meat, but his company expects wider acceptance as the process becomes more common. Pasteurization of milk encountered similar, early skepticism, he said.
“Now it is a readily accepted thing to do to milk, just because it makes milk safer,” Clemmons said.
Eustice remains optimistic about the road ahead for irradiated beef. “The future has never been brighter,” said Eustice. “We will continue to see demand increase. The consumer will ultimately decide whether the consumer wants more safety.”
A Second Chance: Although not yet extensively used in the meat industry, experts predict irradiation will become a more common practice in the future.
There is a technology available that can significantly reduce foodborne pathogens in ground beef and poultry. It is a technology endorsed by virtually every government organization in the U.S., including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization.
Yet, this technology “irradiation” has gotten nothing but a bad rap in the past due to consumer concerns over the process, specifically the possibility of long-term health risks of the radiation used to eliminate the pathogens. But the process has been studied for nearly half a century now and found to be safe and risk-free, and the public finally is warming up to the use of irradiation on food products. In fact, a recent CNN poll reported that 70 percent of consumers said they think it is safe to eat meat that has been irradiated to kill harmful bacteria.
“When adequately educated, consumers will accept irradiated meat,” says Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council, which has been educating consumers about irradiation for the past 10 years. One of the biggest reasons for acceptance is the focus on food safety and increased publicity of information regarding foodborne illness. A study conducted by the USDA Economic Research Service and the University of Florida found that consumers are willing to pay more for a safer food product. The CDC estimates that food irradiation on a large-scale basis will prevent nearly 900,000 cases of illness, 8,500 hospitalizations, over 6,000 catastrophic illnesses and 350 deaths each year in the U.S.
So what’s the holdup in instituting irradiation on a large scale? The biggest issue is the limited number of irradiation facilities in the U.S. There are only two major irradiation providers in this country -- Sadex Corp. in Sioux City, Iowa, and Food Technology Service in Mulberry, Fla. Companies seeking to irradiate large amounts of product must have it shipped to one of these facilities, which can be challenging for processors not located in the vicinity. This has been made even more difficult due to the current high fuel and transportation costs.
Handling costs are another hurdle when factoring in irradiation. “The cost situation depends on the amount of handling it takes to process the product,” says Harlan E. Clemmons, president and COO of Sadex Corp. “The dose of irradiation also is a factor in establishing a price. In addition, there is a cost involved for refrigeration.” He estimates the price to treat a product is anywhere from 7 to 15 cents per pound.
Still, even though irradiated food adds a few cents per pound to the cost of production, the products’ extended shelf life can potentially offset at least some of these costs. Irradiated product has a shelf life two to three times greater than non-irradiated product. For example, irradiated ground beef can be out 45 to 60 days, pork up to 140 days depending on the cut, and poultry out up to 21 days.
Important to note that irradiation does not eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination of meat. This is because, while irradiation virtually eliminates harmful bacteria, the food is not sterile. Because common spoilage bacteria are still present, proper handling and storage procedures are necessary.
Even though rare hamburgers are safer from E. coli, people who may be at higher risk for foodborne illness, such as young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, should still only eat fully cooked ground beef.
In addition, all irradiated foods must contain an identifying symbol called a â€œradura.-- Foods that contain irradiated spices or foods served in restaurants do not have to be identified as being irradiated. Congress’ Farm Bill allows companies to label irradiated food as pasteurized in addition to irradiated.
The three irradiation technologies used today are electron beams, gamma rays and X-rays. The majority of irradiated meat is processed using either E beam or gamma ray technology.
Electron beams, also called E beams, are streams of fast-moving electrons, produced in electron accelerators. Electrons from approved accelerator sources can penetrate food to a depth of only 1.5 inches. Two opposing beams can treat a little more than twice that thickness. Shipping cartons of food products are generally too thick to be processed with this method.
Sadex Corp. uses E beam irradiation technology. According to Clemmons, the advantages of E beams are speed, efficiency and total use of electricity. “The down side is that, to process quickly, the product has to be configured uniformly,” he says.
Product that is not ideally packaged for this application needs to have something else to absorb part of the E beam. “A box of beef that is 3.5 inches thick can be processed more efficiently than a small box of burgers that has multiple layers. Some companies have a square patty layout to alleviate air space in the box for better processing. It is easier to irradiate product of uniform height and depth with this method,” Clemmons says.
Gamma rays are similar to X-rays but are produced from either Cobalt 60 or Cesium 137 radioisotopes.
With gamma rays, the products are transported around the source in a shielded chamber until the process is complete. Gamma rays are photons and can penetrate whole cartons of food product. These systems operate continuously. When not in use for treating products, the gamma source is generally kept in a pool of water, which absorbs the radiation harmlessly and completely.
Clemmons says there have been great advances on the gamma side. “There used to be issues on distributing even doses, but now this is possible with gamma ray irradiation,” he says, adding that this method is the least expensive and provides the most product penetration.
The X-ray machine is a more powerful version of the machines used in many hospitals and dental offices. X-rays are produced when electrons exiting an accelerator strike any material. To produce useful quantities of X-rays, a tungsten or tantalum metal plate is attached to the end of the accelerator scan horn. The electrons strike the plate and are converted into X-rays, which pass through the metal plate and onto the product being conveyed underneath. X-rays can penetrate whole cartons of food, be switched on or off and also require shielding.
“X-rays have great penetrating power, but from an efficiency standpoint, you’re losing 90 percent of the system’s capabilities when you hit it off a target to create photons. Consequently, there is an issue of wasted electricity,” Clemmons says. “Also, in some instances, there are problems with processing speeds. Although you can irradiate larger volumes with X-ray systems, you have to slow it down due to the process.”
Use of Irradiation
Eustice says about 15 million pounds of irradiated ground beef and poultry is marketed annually in this country. “The companies that are thoroughly committed to the process continue to market their products as irradiated,” he says.
The majority of irradiated meat, however, is ground beef. “Poultry was slow to catch on, but there is a huge advantage to irradiating boneless breasts and boneless thighs,” Clemmons says. “As ground beef catches on, there will be advantages in the poultry industry.”
He says with pork, irradiation takes care of the trichinosis risk. “More restaurants will be able to serve medium-rare [irradiated] pork chops,” Clemmons says.
Food Technology Service currently irradiates 12 million pounds of food annually using gamma ray technology, according to Rick Hunter, CEO. “Irradiation provides another barrier in a multiple-barrier approach to food safety,” he says.
One of its clients is Omaha Beef, which has been irradiating its bulk ground beef and burgers since the fall of 2000. The impetus for this was the concern of company president, Bruce Simon, about the potential of E. coli. According to Beth Weiss, corporate communications director at the company, the use of irradiation did not negatively affect ground beef sales. “It does cost us more money to produce irradiated ground beef, however, we decided not to pass this expense on to consumers. It is a cost of doing business that the company has absorbed,” she says.
Currently, ground beef is the only Omaha Beef product that is irradiated. Weiss says this is because, with whole-muscle meat, bacteria are on the surface and more easily killed during cooking. “If there ever was concern with other products, irradiation would be something we would look at because of our excellent experience with this technology,” she says.
Huisken Meats, based in Sauk Rapids, Minn., sends its frozen private-label ground beef patties to Sadex for irradiation. The company has been irradiating product since May of 2000. Clifford Albertson, general manager and COO, says irradiation is the only definitive step in eliminating any issue with E. coli. “There are a number of other interventions that the beef industry has adopted for the past number of years that have been cumulatively effective, as reflected in the decreased number of foodborne illness incidences,” he says, adding that he believes irradiation should be used more often.
Huisken Meats also builds the irradiation costs into the price of its meats. “A significant portion of the cost is transportation [of the product to and from the irradiation facility]. But the cost of irradiating the product is a matter of a few pennies a pound,” he says.
Like Omaha Beef, Huisken Meats has had no negative consumer responses regarding its irradiated product in recent years. “There were some activists in the past that generated letter-writing campaigns, but that hasn’t happened in years,” Albertson says.
Hunter says the future of irradiation is dependent on the meat industry’s interest as well as economics. “I think the rapid and increasing usage of irradiation in the produce industry will [spur increased interest from other industries],” he says. “The U.S. government has entered into framework equivalency agreements to allow imports and exports of irradiated fruit and vegetables to eliminate insects. Also, we are awaiting FDA approval on irradiated hot dogs and lunchmeat. As these products reach retailer shelves, they will serve to further enhance consumer understanding of irradiation.”
Clemmons agrees, saying that he knows of at least one major upscale supermarket chain that plans to promote irradiated products in the near future. Eustice says the industry is on the doorstep of a sea change of sorts.
“Irradiation will do for ground beef what pasteurization did for milk,” he predicts.
E. Coli Spinach Salad--Yummy!
As of this writing, no one is quite sure how fresh, bagged spinach became tainted with a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria that caused hundreds of people to become ill. But, even as the bags of leafy greens were being pulled from store shelves nationwide, the public relations machines of various companies and organizations were firing up to make promotional hay from tainted spinach.
An editorial in the New York Times blamed grain-fed cattle for the scourge, citing evidence that feeding grain to cattle causes a highly acidic stomach environment in cattle that might select for acid-resistant E. coli. In theory, such acid-resistant bacteria can survive the acid pH of the human stomach and cause illness.
Other groups pointed to the use of “organic” manure, rather than chemical fertilizer, as a potential cause of the problem. Despite the spin and speculation, it remained uncertain whether the contamination came from manure, contaminated rinse water or perhaps even the dirty hands of a worker at a spinach packing plant.
One thing is certain, however; the contamination, its resultant human illness (and at least one death) could have been prevented with irradiation, otherwise known as “electronic pasteurization.” The technology recently got its spin on the public relations wheel when David Corbin, CEO of Sadex Corporation, hosted a press conference where he sat down and ate a spinach salad previously contaminated with E. coli after it had been irradiated by one of Sadex’s machines.
Corbin was not taking much of a chance, though. The publicity stunt was conducted in collaboration with an independent laboratory and under the observance of experts on food-borne pathogens, which confirmed the presence of the potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 organism before irradiation and its absence after the treatment. Sadex Corporation is based in Fort Worth, Texas, and operates an electronic pasteurization facility in Sioux City, Iowa. The company provides irradiation services to food and agricultural industries that eliminates pathogens, such as Salmonella, Listeria, adn E. coli, without the use of radioactive or chemical agents.
Sadex Makes Ground Beef Safer
In the fight against foodborne pathogens, meat and poultry processors face serious challenges to keep their product lines contaminant-free and safe for consumption. But those processors need not stand alone in teh war on pathogens.
Sadex Corporation gives processors a powerful weapon in the battle for food safety. Sadex provides electron beam ("e-beam") irradiation, or "cold pasteurization" services to meat processors, as well as other food and agricultural industries, utilizing proprietary, patented technology to eliminate pathogens without the use of radioactive or chemical agents.
Located in Sioux City, Iowa, Sadex's irradiation facility has the ability to process in excess of 140 million pounds of ground beef per year, depending on packaging, says Harlan Clemmons, president and COO of the company. Typical turnaround of a truckload of meat is less than two hours from time of arrival at the Sadex facility to shipment.
Simply put, the effects of foodborne illness on business can be devastating, but as David A. Corbin, Chariman of the Board and CEO of Sadex explains, Sadex can help businesses avoid those effects.
"Nothing is more disheartening than to see businesses that are faced with financial reversals due to the damaging effects of foodborne illness on reputation, unneeded litigation, and customer health," Corbin says. "This is especially true when we know Sadex has a cost-effective solution for this problem."
Sadex takes seriously the responsibilities to its customers and employees, a mantra that shines through in the many steps teh company takes to safely irradiate a wide variety of product and varying customer specifications. Sadex partners with the meat processing companies and the USDA/FSIS to ensure that product labeled as irradiated is processed before it reaches the distribution cneters, retail, and foodservice end users. From the moment Sadex receives a truckload of product for irradiation treatment, monitoring and quality-control processes begin.
"Our patented process, which has redundant system checks monitored in real-time, eliminates the chance of mis-treating product, as do the facility's physical barriers that prevent commingling of processed and unprocessed product," Clemmons explains.
Computer settings are fixed for each individual product based on a Specific Product Supplemental Agreement (SPSA) that both Sadex and the customer sign. An SPSA allows the customer to verify and approve doses for their individual products, and it must match the products codes of the received product for the system to operate.
Dosage readings are taken from "dosimeters," comprised of alanine pellets or alanine coated film strips that trap free electrons produced during irradiation. These dosimeters are placed inside a panel called a "phantom" and run through the irradiation process with the product. Testing is done at least three times during a product's processing--before the first carrier, after the last carrier, and at the halfway point of the complete load--to verify dose received throughout the entire shipment.
Sadex's process results in typical pathogen reduction between 4 and 5 logs, which equates to a 99.99 percent to 99.999 percent reduction, for such organisms as E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, and Salmonella. The dose level to achieve this reduction is 1.0 kilograys (kGy) for fresh ground beef and 1.8 kGy for frozen ground beef. At these dose levels there are no organoleptic changes to the product.
Improving awareness of the benefits of irradiation among customers and consumers has been a challenge that Sadex has taken head-on as well.
"Part of our job here at Sadex is to educate the restaurants or supermarkets as to the benefits of producing a premium product, of which irradiation is an integral part," Corbin adds. "The final consumer often times looks to the institution for their expert judgment or information concerning a product or process."
Sadex begins the information chain by educating its customers--the grocers or restaurant operators--on the benefits of irradiated product.
"Many of our clients do a great job of providing information to their customers concerning irradiation and its numerous benefits," he continues. "These companies tend to have more loyal customers through the process, and irradiated products tend to be bigger profit centers than non value-added products."
As consumer interest in irradiated product increases, Sadex has positioned itself to meet the needs of the future in the industry, Corbin says.
"Consumers will someday look for the 'irradiated' label on food products the same way that people look for 'Intel Inside(R)' or the NutraSweet(R) swirl," he explains. "It is our belief that consumer knowledge of irradiation is increasing exponentially, and that far-sighted companies are looking at using [irradiation] as a strategic advantage in marketing."
For more information on Sadex, its process, and its services, call 712-252-3505 or 888-44SADEX.