The largest employee-owned supermarket in the US, Publix, has announced its plans to start selling irradiated beef and chicken in its stores.

The irradiated meat, which will be sold in all of Publix's 711 stores by early next year, is being introduced as an alternative for consumers worried about harmful bacteria contained in meat products.

The process of irradiating food was first approved by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the 1960's for use on wheat and white potatoes. Since then, the FDA has approved the use of the process on raw meat, dehydrated spices and fresh fruit, in order to control insects and increase the shelf life of the product. In 2000, the FDA gave its approval to irradiated ground beef, which has since been sold in a number of supermarkets and restaurants. However, only 12.8% of supermarkets sell irradiated products and the majority of supermarkets say they have no plans to start selling the products, according to a recent survey by the Food Marketing Institute.

Some health organisations approve of irradiated meat, especially following recent nationwide recalls of ground beef due to the potential presence of the harmful E. coli bacteria, which can cause vomiting, cramps and diarrhoea, and in some cases can lead to kidney failure and even death.

But so far sales of irradiated meat have yet to take off, primarily due to many consumers believing irradiation to be harmful. Publix, which reported 2001 retail sales of US$15.3bn, believes that some customers are beginning to demand irradiated meat. The company will sell irradiated beef patties, which are currently sold in several other supermarkets, and irradiated chicken breast, making it the only supermarket to sell both irradiated chicken and beef.