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An appetizing case for irradiation

Canada is at least a decade behind other countries in adopting this proven and safe technology

ground beef

When it comes to food, irradiation just does not sound all that appetizing. Visions of X-ray machines and the atomic bomb quickly come to mind and associating these images with food may not be compelling.

Now that Health Canada is considering the use of food irradiation for beef products, the debate rages and most wonder if the benefits of using this technology will be overpowered by the fear of the technology itself.

The technology has been around for almost 60 years. Germany was the first country to use irradiation on spices in 1958. The process is quite simple and fast. Industry uses the technology for two fundamental reasons. It makes food safer and also extends the shelf life of the product in stores and at home.

Food products approved by Health Canada are briefly exposed to alpha or gamma rays which may kill E. coli, salmonella and other microbes, as well as some parasites and moulds. It is essentially a cold process which doesn’t change the food’s temperature. Foods go in and out of a machine in seconds.

Studies show clearly that when irradiation is used as approved, it can reduce the amount of disease-causing micro-organisms without changing the nutritional integrity of the food product. In addition, the food does not become radioactive as some may fear. Irradiation is a safe and effective technology that can prevent many foodborne diseases, but it is capital intensive.

Machines can cost millions and require highly skilled labour to properly operate the technology. However, as most food companies are always one food recall away from closing their doors, many industry pundits feel it is worth the investment.

Canada allows irradiation to be used on products such as flour, spices, onions and potatoes, but not on meats. Over 55 countries around the world allow irradiation to be used regularly on meat, including the United States. The U.S. Food and Drugs Administration has approved the use of irradiation on beef for almost two decades now. It even recently approved the use of irradiation on lobster, shrimps and crab. Irradiation is a widely spread practice.

The E. coli outbreak at XL Foods in Brooks, Alberta in 2012 was the largest in Canadian history. Many consumers become ill after consuming beef processed by the company. A subsequent report on the incident insisted that beef irradiation should be approved, and used widely, to prevent more of these recalls from happening again. With climate change many experts expect bacteria migration to become more prominent which will make risk mitigation in processing more challenging. Allowing companies to use efficient tools to protect the public only makes sense.

So for Canada, it is about time we moved forward on this as we are at least a decade behind, if not more. Research on the use of food irradiation has taken place for over 40 years and results are as conclusive as they can get. What needs to be clear though is how risks are going to be communicated to the Canadian public. Even though labelling rules for pre-packaged food products are strict in Canada, most consumers are still oblivious to the fact that some of the food products we use every day are already being irradiated in Canada.

That needs to change. Proper labelling at retail should allow consumers to befriend the technology. It would be surprising if Canadian consumers wouldn’t be given a clear choice while shopping for beef, as American shoppers are in the U.S.

Health Canada conducted an exhaustive study on irradiation in 2002 but felt Canadians were not ready. Since then, anxieties seem to have dissipated as consumers are showing signs of technological ease. The “fear” needle has likely moved since 2002, similar to what genetically engineered crops are experiencing as well.

Some consumer groups in Canada are now very supportive. Longitudinal studies are making a case for better technology to be used to make our food safer and more affordable. But science is not an absolute and should not stop there. Research should continue its path to better understand emerging risks which could always become more harmful in the future.

Years ago, some had similar fears when microwave ovens arrived on the market. Today, more than 90 per cent of Canadian households have a microwave oven and barely anyone expresses any concerns about the technology which has inarguably made our lives easier. So with time, technology becomes part of us. It’s just human nature.

About the author


Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.

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