The waiting has begun all over again for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) as it renews efforts to persuade Health Canada to approve irradiation for beef.
The CCA submitted paperwork in early May asking the federal agency to restart the approval process for beef irradiation in Canada, repeating a similar request in a 1998 petition.
Then, the association sought irradiation as an option for fresh or frozen ground beef in its final packaging for the control of E. coli 0157:H7. However, this time, the petition is for all types of beef products so that its use can be expanded to other beef products, said Mark Klassen, director of technical services with the CCA.
“This isn’t a short process,” said Klassen, adding it will take at least a year for Health Canada to process the application.
The U.S. Food and Drug Agency (FDA) has evaluated the safety of irradiated food for more than 30 years and it seemed the process was safe. Beef, pork and poultry are among nearly a dozen food products permitted to be irradiated in the U.S.
The CCA’s request has been on hold for 15 years, with the federal government stating last fall there were no plans to revisit the issue.
A scientific review of CCA’s initial submission was completed by Health Canada in 2000, and at that time a recommended Canadian code of practice for food irradiation was also developed. But the matter was shelved after public consultations in 2003 revealed considerable consumer unease with food irradiation.
He’s hopeful there may be less opposition this time.
Klassen also said time lapse may be to their advantage. It was consumer concern that halted final approval of the previous application, not questions about the safety or efficacy of irradiation technology.
“Sometimes there’s no substitute for time,” he said. “It’s my impression that society is becoming more comfortable with technology of all sorts.”
But opposition will be expressed again. Groups and individuals who continue to mistrust the technology have already begun urging Canadians via online posts and letter-writing campaigns to tell federal authorities to block approval.
However, there are also signs some Canadians would choose irradiated food products. A 2012 Angus Reid poll conducted by the Consumers Association of Canada last logged 45 per cent of respondents saying they were ‘very concerned’ about the presence of foodborne, illness-causing bacteria in both chicken, hamburger and deli meat. Eleven per cent said they were ‘very likely’ and 43 per cent ‘somewhat likely’ to consider irradiated meat as a choice for their household if it was less likely to be contaminated with pathogens.
The CCA’s 2013 petition is also supported with updated research, including findings from a study completed this spring at the University of Manitoba showing a very low dose of electronic beam irradiation is effective at killing pathogens of concern.
University of Manitoba food scientist and principal investigator Rick Holley said a treatment of one kGy, which is the unit used to measure absorbed dose, was shown to effectively control both E. coli 0157:H7 and non-0157 VTEC E. coli as well as salmonella in fresh beef trim (which is used in ground beef production).
“Our intent here was to determine what effect would the lowest practical dose have upon elimination of threat or risk with this group of pathogenic organisms,” he said.
The study also used a sensory panel to determine whether the same low-dose e-beam treatment would affect sensory qualities. The findings show there are no detectable changes to aroma, texture, juiciness and flavour and only very minor changes in colour that are eliminated when meat is cooked, Holley said.
A panel of taste testers could not tell which patties where treated, even when made with 100 per cent irradiated beef, he said, adding there was also improved shelf life of fresh meat.
“Within this single study, with the equipment that we were using, and at that level (of treatment) we found essentially suitable elimination of the pathogenic bacteria and we weren’t able to see that there were detectable effects on the cooked meat,” Holley said.
Irradiation is approved in the U.S. for use in meat at absorbed doses up to seven kGy. Irradiation has been scientifically deemed safe for food use at levels much higher — up to 60 kGy.
Irradiation is approved by Health Canada for potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, whole and ground spices, and dehydrated seasoning preparations but the technology is not widely used. According to Health Canada’s website, the main use of irradiation in this country has been on spices.
Klassen said while the technology will continue to have its critics, the industry believes clear labelling of irradiated beef and consumer education as key to these products eventually gaining consumer acceptance.
The CAC’s survey notably also found the majority of Canadians (57 per cent) doesn’t understand what food irradiation is.
“We’ll do what we can through labelling of these products so consumers can make an informed choice,” he said, adding that pasteurization was suspected for many years after the milk industry began using it too.
“Where we can get support from the medical community and the scientific community helping explain this will potentially shorten that time for acceptance,” he said.
“I think the concerns that are understandably present for some consumers relate to the fact that irradiation seems like something new, even though it has been around for more than 100 years,” he added.
It was in 1905 that patents were first issued to U.S. and British scientists who were then proposing the use of ionizing radiation to kill bacteria in food.