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NFU opposes ground beef irradiation

Irradiation will allow large companies to benefit from regulation and puts up another barrier to smaller packers, the NFU says

Irradiated ground beef, such as these burger patties, is expected to have a lower potential presence of harmful pathogens such as E. coli.

The National Farmers Union says Health Canada should kibosh its proposal to allow irradiation of ground beef and improve meat inspection instead.

The department should also establish “appropriate and effective regulations that will support a diversified, regional food-processing strategy,” the NFU said. “These actions would increase Canadians’ confidence in meat packers to provide them with clean, wholesome ground beef produced by Canadian farmers.”

In June, Health Canada announced it had decided ground beef “treated with irradiation is safe to eat and retains its nutritional value, taste, texture and appearance.” It launched an electronic consultation that closes Sept. 1.

The NFU says JBS and Cargill, two foreign-owned companies dominate the Canadian beef-packing industry. “Irradiation equipment is costly, thus we can assume that these two companies would be in the best position to benefit from the proposed regulatory change.”

Ron Davidson, director of International Trade, Government and Media Relations with the Canadian Meat Council, says both large and small packers and processors “believe that irradiation offers a well-researched, internationally accepted, and long-proven methodology for further reducing the potential presence of harmful pathogens.”

Irradiated fresh and frozen ground beef would be an option for processors and consumers, he added. It “would be applicable to only a limited portion of ground beef production that has already satisfied all food safety criteria, constitute an added cost of production, and be of interest primarily to purchasers who may be particularly vulnerable to foodborne illness or who choose an even higher level of food safety certainty.

“Health Canada approval of this scientifically validated technology would: reduce human illness and suffering; decrease health-care expenditures; improve confidence in Canada’s food safety system; benefit this nation economically; and, provide Canadians with the opportunity to exercise individual choice,” he noted.

Davidson noted foodborne pathogens are not visible and food safety cannot be inspected into food products. It “is best obtained by the use of leading-edge technology, procedures, equipment, and monitoring.”

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association first requested approval for ground beef irradiation back in 1998. It and the Canadian Meat Council kept pressuring the department on the issue, which regained public attention in the wake of the 2012 XL beef scandal. An investigation into it urged the department to approve irradiation. It’s already used on potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, spices and seasoning preparations as well as medical supplies, food-packaging materials and cosmetic ingredients for many years. All irradiated foods have to be labelled with the Radura symbol.

The NFU said “JBS and Cargill would have the capacity to spread the cost of expensive irradiation equipment over their high volume of sales. This means they could choose to use irradiation to cut costs, which would allow them to undercut smaller companies and thereby increase their market domination by driving these competitors out of business.

“With fewer abattoirs and packers, the options of both farmers and consumers would shrink, as they would increasingly be forced to sell or buy from JBS and Cargill. Reducing choices makes it easier for the two dominant meat companies to pay beef producers less for their animals and to charge higher prices to retailers and the consumers who ultimately buy and eat ground beef.”

The NFU said it’s concerned processors would use irradiation “as a mop-up operation to compensate for unsanitary conditions and inadequate procedures. Irradiation may also instil a false confidence in the meat’s safety. Any harmful toxins produced by dangerous bacteria that were living in the meat prior to irradiation would remain in the meat. Furthermore, once most or all micro-organisms are killed by irradiation, any pathogens that remain alive or come into contact with the meat afterward would proliferate quickly, as they would not face any competition from harmless micro-organisms that would otherwise be present.”

Canada’s food safety system “requires food processors to analyse their procedures and identify each point where a hazard could occur and to put in place control measures to prevent the hazard from being present when the consumer purchases the product.”

Processors could use irradiation to control “fecal contamination of carcasses that occurs when processing high volumes at high speeds without adequate inspection of production lines.”

The group noted “numerous reports” that have criticized government cutbacks to front-line meat inspection staffing levels and changes to procedures.

A shift away from “actual inspection of the lines” and toward “auditing of the companies’ HACCP plan compliance paperwork,” have resulted in food safety becoming “largely a matter of industry self-regulation,” the NFU said.

CLARIFICATION, Aug. 30, 2016: An earlier version of this article quoted the NFU as citing a 2013 report from the federal auditor general’s office for criticizing “government cutbacks to front-line meat inspection staffing levels and changes to procedures,” where the NFU’s brief in fact cites “numerous reports, including the 2013 auditor general’s report.” The auditor general’s report in question lists multiple recommendations regarding CFIA procedures but does not specifically refer to cutbacks.

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