First TV Dinners, Now This

The USDA gives the go-ahead for irradiating meat, which they say will make food safer. Will Americans buy it?

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Once upon a time, a trip to the grocery store was a simple, almost mind-numbing task. These days, shopping for dinner and translating myriad food labels begs a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a solid background in current affairs. And Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to make things even more interesting, issuing its long-awaited approval of irradiation technology for meat. That's right — in roughly 60 days, there will be a new label to inspect at your local market: The "radura" symbol will adorn meat that's been zapped by gamma rays — much in the manner of microwave ovens, without actually cooking the meat. The process, scientists say, wipes out E. coli and other, potentially life-threatening bacteria. While the Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation for meat back in 1997, the meat industry still faces its toughest critics: the American public.

"Nobody has reported any adverse effects from irradiation," says TIME science writer Frederic Golden. And given the abandon with which America has embraced its microwave ovens, one could be forgiven for underestimating the public outcry that greeted the idea of irradiation several years ago. The meat industry, which will invest huge sums creating the infrastructure necessary for irradiation, is hoping Americans have gotten over their fear of treated meat. "Unlike the so-called Frankenfoods, which involve genetic alterations, irradiation is pretty standard stuff," says Golden. And, he adds, zapping meat is, ostensibly, a public health measure. Issues of safety aside, there is little information on the question gnawing at gastronomes everywhere: How does irradiated filet mignon taste?