Dr. Gene W. Ray
Beef Irradiation Comes of Age

Dr. Gene W. Ray is the President and CEO of San Diego-based Titan Corporation, a provider and integrator of information technology, satellite communications systems and medical product sterilization, which has utilized its expertise in electron beam technology to develop an isotope-free food irradiation device. Know as the SureBeam electronic food pasteurization system, the device uses commercial electricity as the source of electrons that are accelerated—via a linear accelerator—to pass through food and effectively destroy foodborne pathogens. The system’s first commercial trial is set for later this year at a USDA-approved Cloverleaf Cold Storage facility in Sioux City, Iowa, where the device will become one of the first irradiation devices to pasteurize ground beef.

FoodTechSource:What makes the SureBeam system different from cobalt-driven irradiation devices?

Dr. Gene W. Ray: What distinguishes it is that it utilizes an electron beam. It’s a machine you turn on and turn off. Very simple to use. Very reliable. This, as opposed to cobalt, which is a radioactive material with the issues that go along with radioactive materials....that you have to continually replenish the source, and, of course, that it will continue to give off gamma rays forever.

FTS: How does the electron beam irradiate? Does it generate radiation?

Dr. Ray: You just take commercial electricity and you have something called a linear accelerator that accelerates the electrons to high speeds so that the electrons themselves become the source of the radiation.

FTS: They convert to x-ray?

Dr. Ray: Well, you can convert these to a gamma ray or a gamma ray that is in the x-ray spectrum. It gives the device more penetration. But for most applications, electron beams are quite sufficient by themselves. For meat irradiation we have found in all the applications we have looked at thus far, that the electron beams themselves are sufficient to handle any food production line we’ve anticipated.

FTS: Does an electron beam system work as efficiently as gamma ray irradiation?

Dr. Ray: Absolutely. It works just as efficiently at lower cost. And one major advantage that electron beam technology has over cobalt is that you can put a completely self-contained electron beam right into the production line so that as the hamburger is being produced it is pasteurized and ready for shipment. Ready for storage. Ready to go to the grocery.

FTS: Without lead shielding?

Dr. Ray: The shielding is self-contained. We installed a similar machine into a medical product manufacturer in Tamecula, and the shielding is all self-contained.

“With SureBeam, a linear accelerator accelerates the electrons to high speeds so that the electrons themselves become the source of the radiation.”

FTS: How much do you estimate your device will add to the cost of production?

Dr. Ray: It adds a few pennies a pound. Roughly a penny a hamburger.

FTS: Is that cheaper than the cobalt process?

Dr. Ray: I’m not sure but that’s what our costs are.

FTS: What are some of the other differences?

Dr. Ray: It’s faster. It literally takes seconds to pasteurize hamburger.

FTS: As opposed to how long for gamma ray?

Dr. Ray: I’m told it takes in the 30- to 60-minute range.

FTS: With cobalt, the dose of radiation cannot exceed certain levels or it will destroy the food. Is your system subject to the same restrictions?

Dr. Ray: Yes. The USDA will shortly come out with specific rules on how to apply this technology, that will set at least a minimum dose that’s required in order to provide a given level of assurances that the E. coli or whatever pathogen, has been eliminated. But what our system does is to very precisely define the dose that is delivered. You accelerate these electrons to high speeds so they penetrate the hamburger; it deposits a low level dose and you are able to verify exactly what that dose is. In fact, if it varies just a few percent the entire machine will shut off. The whole process stops. So in our case you simply can’t deliver too high a dose.

FTS: How precise does it have to be?

Dr. Ray: Relatively precise. You have some room. But we believe in delivering a more precise dose in a very short period of time. That way you can put the system in the middle of the production line or at the end of the production line without effecting the temperature at which the raw ground beef, for example, is being kept at.

FTS: And irradiation doesn’t change the taste of food?

Dr. Ray: There has been extensive research performed on using radiation to pasteurize food—studies going back over 50 years at many leading universities. There is no change in taste. We’ve even done test samples; in fact just recently we did some taste testing at our company headquarters at the cafeteria, and the kind of dose we’re talking about that, according to the FDA, will eliminate 99.999999% of all E. coli—which makes eating the food safer than walking across the street in the middle of the day—in our taste test, no one could tell the difference. In fact, 14 out of 16 people chose the meat that had been pasteurized.

FTS: So, at what point are we at in terms of the regulatory process?

Dr. Ray: The FDA approved the use of irradiation—both cobalt 60 and linear accelerators—in December of 1997. However, it still requires the USDA to come out with its regulations and rule-making as to how this technology will be implemented. They came out with a draft version two months ago. However, we still cannot run an operation commercially until those finally guidelines are issued.

FTS: How long do you think that will be?

Dr. Ray: How long does it take the government to do anything? It shouldn’t take very long. The thing that scares me is that when I was meeting with the senior level people at the USDA they indicated that the biggest hurdle left before they issue the final regulations is a legal review within the USDA, and then the Office of Management and Budget. And when you have lawyers reviewing anything it’s very unpredictable. But it should be a matter of months, not a matter of years.

“Our equipment would fit in a relatively small room—15 x 20...it can pasteurize up to 50 million pounds of ground beef per year.”

FTS: What is the difference in size between the two systems?

Dr. Ray: Our equipment would fit in a relatively small room—15 x 20. All of our equipment. I don’t know the exact size of a cobalt device but it’s much larger.

FTS: How much product can your system handle?

Dr. Ray: Up to 50 million pounds of ground beef per year—which is a lot for one facility. We’ve talked with all the major producers and thus far, the machines that we have been building will handle the largest production line we’ve run into, and not slow it down at all. We will also be offering a service facility where if people want to bring and do testing and so forth they can bring it and we will pasteurize it for them.

FTS: Can you put the figure of 50 million pounds into some kind of perspective?

Dr. Ray: Our guesstimate is that we would need 150 of these plants across the country to handle just the amount of ground beef consumed in the United States each year.

FTS: Are you just aiming at ground beef market?

Dr. Ray: No. We are interested in all foods. But it takes the FDA approving and the USDA coming out with their regulations in order for any food to be approved. Several foods have already been approved in the U.S.: chicken, pork, as well as a number of vegetables and fruits. For example we announced just a few weeks ago that we will be building a facility in Hawaii that will kill fruit flies on certain fruits so that they can be shipped from Hawaii to the continental U.S.

FTS: Is your system being used by anyone right now in the food industry?

Dr. Ray: Not in the food industry. However it is being used across a large spectrum of the medical industry. It has been well-accepted by the major corporations in the industry.

FTS: How long ago did you finalize the system and make it ready for market?

Dr. Ray: We got started in this technology business back in 1983. We actually built our first system and put it into operation in Denver six years ago. It was for the medical industry—a service facility that we own and operate. We have another service facility here in San Diego. Both are running at or near capacity and we are looking at how to increase capacity. And then we have sold similar type systems to both American and international customers.

FTS: Were there many adjustments that needed to be made to the system in order to pursue food industry applications?

Dr. Ray: No. There really were very few. There is a different material handling system because it is a different material. And that’s basically it.

FTS: Does it matter whether you are irradiating a cold food or room temperature food product?

Dr. Ray: No. We can pasteurize frozen hamburger as well as fresh hamburger.

FTS: Is there any type of food irradiation would have a detrimental effect upon?

Dr. Ray: Not that I know of. But now if you do it too much, if you put in too high a dose then of course you would chance the taste.

FTS: Your system operates at what level?

Dr. Ray: It can operate at any level we want it to but we are probably going to use it at a dose of approximately 1.5 kiloGrays (150,000 rads—Ed.). And according to the USDA document, 1.5 kiloGrays eliminates virtually all E. coli.

FTS: You can go up to 10 kiloGrays without harming the food, is that correct?

Dr. Ray: That’s right.

FTS: So, irradiation would work on cheeses, etc?

Dr. Ray: Absolutely. We’re in discussion with a number of different food providers.

FTS: And it doesn’t change the nutritional value of the food?

Dr. Ray: As long as it is given at appropriate doses.

FTS: What is the future of food irradiation?

Dr. Ray: I think in the long term it will be like milk. Today, very few of us would allow our children to drink milk that has not been pasteurized. I believe the next generation will similarly not allow their children to eat foods—certain foods like hamburger—that has not been pasteurized. For the same reason: it decreases the probability of microbial problems. Today in the United States we have the safest food anywhere in the world. But there’s one additional thing that we can do that will enhance the safety of our food products substantially. And this is it, so why shouldn’t we do it?

FTS: Herman Cain, president of the National Restaurant Association, was recently cited as saying that onsite irradiation within restaurants would one day become as commonplace as microwave cooking. Do you see any way of utilizing your technology for that purpose?

“We have a new technology that reduces the volume of the klystron —the linear accelerator—by almost a factor of ten. And when you reduce size and complexity you reduce cost.”

Dr. Ray: Yes, I do.

FTS: At a reasonable cost?

Dr. Ray: That’s the thing that needs to be worked on. But the thing that brings cost down is volume. With high volume you bring the cost down. For example, nine years ago, if you wanted to buy a digital receiver for television, the cost was enormous—$10,000 kind of range. Today they are a little over $100. As volume goes up, price will come down.

FTS: Do you have plans for developing the technology?

Dr. Ray: Absolutely. We have a new technology that is a new way of accomplishing what we have here that reduces the volume of the accelerating part—the klystron, that does the acceleration of these electrons—by almost a factor of ten. And when you reduce size and complexity you reduce cost.

FTS: How big is the device now?

Dr. Ray: In a system like ours it might be six feet long and very small in diameter. But if you should be able to get it down to almost a factor ten smaller. But that is a new technology that has been demonstrated to work but has not yet been put into commercial application.

FTS: Is there any downside to irradiation?

Dr. Ray: I don’t think there are any meaningful downside anymore than there are downsides to pasteurizing milk. You hear people say that if you allow the food producers to pasteurize food they’re going to become sloppy and stop taking a lot of the safety measures they take now. To me that’s a ridiculous argument. Have milk producers gotten sloppy? Of course not. It’s just good business not to.

FTS: You’re building a site now?

Dr. Ray: That’s right. We’re building at a Cloverleaf site in Sioux City, Iowa. It’s already an FDA-approved facility and we have a strategic alliance with Cloverleaf, where the plant will be operated in their facility.

FTS: It will go on line when?

Dr. Ray: Before the end of this year.

FTS: You don’t expect the government to throw up any roadblocks?

Dr. Ray: No we do not. The kind of guidelines they’re going to come out with does not impact the feasibility of our technology at all.

FTS: Do you believe this is due to public awareness?

Dr. Ray: In part.

FTS: Are you meeting any resistance at all?

Dr. Ray: I’ve been extremely pleased that so far we have not run into any negative press. I think a couple of things have changed. First, the general public is much more knowledgeable now about some of the problems that foodborne pathogens cause. And I think they are ready to accept a scientifically well established solution to that potential public health problem. Not that more education is not required, but I think the public has come a long way in the past few years.

FTS: There are some indications they haven’t fully come around yet.

Dr. Ray: Yes, and I’m afraid there are still people out there who misrepresent the facts. Some number of years ago when the first cobalt facility was opening in Florida for treatment of fruits and vegetables, one of the major network news programs did a segment on it, and I remember them talking to several people who were alarmists, who predicted that all sorts of horrible things were going to happen—and they were quoting scientific studies. Then the reporters went and talked to the scientists who actually produced the work and the scientists said, “No that’s not what our results say.” Their research proved irradiation does not cause any of the problems the alarmists were predicting. But I’m sure sooner or later we will run into some form of that. Hopefully, the coverage will continue to be like yours—much more balanced.

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