Overland Park — The burgers grilling recently on a patio near the Johnson County Community College's Library smelled as mouthwatering as those cooked in your neighbor's back yard.
But these were different burgers. With these patties, every step was taken to ensure they were safe to eat, starting at the slaughter plant. As the beef in the patties was processed at the packers, it was subjected to steam pasteurization and irradiation to kill any harmful bacteria.
Before the invited guests sat down to eat the burgers, three Kansas State University meat science professors talked about the strides the beef industry is making to assure the safety of the meat at the local grocery.
But some things may never change: The final safety steps, the professors say, are up to the cooks.
Kansas State Research and Extension sponsored the college cookout to call attention to food safety as the outdoor grilling season gets into full swing.
The 1993 E. coli outbreak in the Pacific Northwest that left four children dead revolutionized beef-sanitation practices. As a result, experts say, the product consumers buy at their grocer's meat counter is much safer.
The beef industry is striving for the same systemic pasteurization that exists in the dairy industry, said Jim Marsden, a Kansas State meat science professor.
"The death penalty is too severe a punishment for someone who undercooks a hamburger," he said.
Kansas State played a big part in the meat-safety revolution. Researchers at the university developed steam pasteurization, Marsden said. The process subjects the surfaces of freshly slaughtered cattle carcasses to 185 degrees, enough to kill 99.9 percent of E. coli, salmonella and other harmful bacteria.
To prevent any new contamination, the carcasses are quickly placed in freezers, Marsden said. With the introduction of the technology, the industry's standard for beef carcass contamination is now zero, Marsden said.
The process is widely used by large packers, and Kansas State has developed a process smaller packing houses can afford.
Still, the industry needs more tools to prevent cross contamination as the beef is processed. The Kansas State professors predicted that the coming tool is food irradiation, which will rid packaged beef, pork, poultry, fruit and vegetables of harmful bacteria.
The drawback is a public perception that irradiated meat glows in the dark or is otherwise altered by nuclear bombardment.
"We have a job of education to do," said Kansas State meat science professor Donald Kropf. "The meat is not radioactive. That's a scary fear, but one that is easy to answer."
Food can be irradiated three different ways, Kropf said, and all subject the meat, fruit or vegetable to an energy source that kills bacteria. One method subjects the food to an electron beam and another to X-rays. A third method does subject the meat to the radioactive isotope cobalt 60.
But, because beef is so bacteria-free from steam pasteurization, very low doses of radiation can be used, Kropf said. The doses are low enough that they don't change the beef's texture, taste or color, he said.
The idea is to irradiate packaged beef, or in the case of burgers, packaged beef patties, Kropf said. The consumer can then be assured the meat they purchase is safe until they open the package, if used before the expiration date, he said.
As a way to avoid the public's negative perception of the process, Kropf prefers to use the term "cold pasteurization" rather than irradiation.
The success of irradiated beef will depend on consumer demand, Kropf said. Marketing research indicates parents of young children are the most likely consumers of irradiated beef, the professor said.