"The recent article, 'The Truth About Irradiated Meats,' which appeared in the August 2003 issue of Consumer Reports magazine, does a serious disservice to consumers on an important topic of food safety. By repeating inaccurate assertions about residual bacteria in irradiated products and basing its recommendations about the wholesomeness of irradiated ground beef and chicken on suspect, unscientific data, the story paints a false and misleading picture of food irradiation. The real truth about irradiation is that it is a safe, effective and scientifically validated technology to help make raw foods even safer for the very consumers the magazine claims to serve.
"The problems with the report are twofold: First, the report confuses and misrepresents the presence of bacteria in raw ground beef and chicken. All raw foods contain bacteria, most of which are benign species common to air, water, soil and virtually all human and household surfaces. By stating that "irradiated meat still contains some bacteria," the magazine displays a lack of understanding of both microbial ecology, as well as an ignorance of the reality that irradiation is administered at precisely calibrated doses designed to kill off harmful pathogenic bacteria -- not destroy all living organisms in a food product. Irradiation levels required for complete sterilization in raw beef or chicken products are not practical and are beyond what is permitted by the law.
"Second, the report alleges that irradiated ground beef products have a distinctive and detectable taste and odor. However, science outlines a clear and comprehensive protocol for conducting sensory analysis of food products, and virtually everything that Consumer Report's amateur shoppers and analysts did in "testing" their irradiated and non-irradiated ground beef samples flies in the face of accepted procedures, including the following facts:
- Sampling needs to be standardized. In a scientific analysis designed to maximize confidence in the results, ground beef would be obtained from the same processing plant on the same day of production and all samples handled and stored at identical temperatures and for the same length of time.
- Sending volunteers out to collect hundreds of different packages of hamburger from dozens of different supermarkets results in samples that vary substantially in terms of shelf life, composition, fat content and other factors that could significantly affect flavor and aroma.
- Trained experts are not the equivalent of ordinary consumers. Using trained panelists is an inappropriate methodology to use when there is a desire to determine if the average consumer can discern differences among products sampled. Slight differences in sensory attributes are detectable by trained panelists, but are not necessarily evident to ordinary shoppers purchasing and preparing ground beef products. The generally accepted method for this type of analysis is to use a random selection of at least 50 untrained consumers. Trained sensory panelists are utilized when precise determinations must be made among foods that may have very subtle differences that may not be evident to consumers.
- Comparing paired samples compromises the data. Common sense suggests that having a panelist decide yes or no whether a sample exhibits a certain characteristic would results in the answers being 'correct' 50 percent of the time by mere chance alone. In scientific analyses, by contrast, panelists typically must identify characteristics correctly in a triangulated selection of three samples at a time, to ensure confidence that the results are more reliable than mere guesswork and more accurate than flipping a coin to see whether it comes up heads or tails.
"Despite its obviously biased position on food irradiation, the report does inadvertently support the real message about food safety that consumers need to hear: Our food supply is remarkably safe, and while irradiation treatment helps increase that margin of safety, ultimately, consumers must take responsibility to properly handle, store and prepare fresh foods to ensure the full measure of protection from foodborne illnesses."