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The Benign Hamburger


Graham F. Peaslee
Chemistry Department
Hope College
Juliette Lantz
Chemistry Department
Drew University
Mary Walczak
Chemistry Department
St. Olaf College


In this dilemma case study, the executives of a popular restaurant chain must decide whether to use irradiated meat, in this case, beef, to protect its customers from the bacteria, E. coli. Students learn about food irradiation and discuss issues related to food safety and the public’s acceptance of new food technologies. As developed, the case could be used in a variety of introductory science courses in chemistry, physics, biology, environmental science, and agricultural science.


  • Introduce an application of nuclear science, addressing some of the myths of nuclear technology, and examining the societal, political, and economic issues surrounding the science of food irradiation.
  • Teach some of the scientific principles of electromagnetic radiation, interaction of radiation and matter, and chemical bonding.
  • Distinguish between atomic and nuclear energy scales.
  • Research a topical and controversial subject.
  • Learn to separate fact from opinion and valid information sources from editorials.
  • Develop critical thinking skills and learn to support arguments and opinions with facts.
  • Apply risk-benefit analysis principles.


Food irradiation; electromagnetic radiation; chemical bonding; E. coli; bacteria; beef; meat; risk-benefit analysis

Topical Areas

Policy issues, Regulatory issues, Social issues

Educational Level

Undergraduate lower division



Type / Methods




Subject Headings

Physics  |   Physical Chemistry  |   Food Science / Technology  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Marie Panec
Biology Department
Moorpark College
I adapted the Benign Hamburger case for a microbiology course I teach and used it as a case study in epidemiology. Students thoroughly enjoyed it, and felt that it covered several aspects of epidemiology that they hadn't previously considered.