Food irradiation may not sound appetizing – images of X-ray machines and atomic bombs quickly come to mind for many people. But Health Canada is considering the use of food irradiation for beef products.
And so a national debate will be sparked.
The technology has been around for almost 60 years. Germany first used irradiation on spices in 1958. The process is quite simple and fast, and industry uses it for two fundamental reasons: it makes food safer and extends the shelf life of products.
Food products approved by Health Canada for irradiation are briefly exposed to alpha or gamma rays that may kill E. coli, salmonella and other microbes, as well as some parasites and moulds. It is essentially a cold process – it doesn’t change the food’s temperature – and 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.
The food does not become radioactive. Irradiation is a safe and effective technology that can prevent many food-borne diseases.
But the technology is costly: machines can cost millions and require highly-skilled operators. However, since most food companies are always one food recall away from disaster, many industry experts feel it is worth the investment.
Canada allows irradiation on products such as flour, spices, onions and potatoes – but not on meats. However, more than 55 other countries allow irradiation on meat, including the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has allowed the use of irradiation on beef for almost two decades and recently approved the use of irradiation on lobster, shrimp and crab.
In 2012, Canada’s largest-ever E. coli outbreak originated at XL Foods in Brooks, Alta. Many consumers became ill after consuming beef processed by the company. A report on the incident recommended that beef irradiation be approved and widely used to prevent similar occurrences.
And the risk of similar occurrences is rising. Many experts expect bacteria migration to become more prominent as a result of climate change, so allowing companies to use the most efficient tools to protect the public only makes sense.
It is well past time Canada moved forward on the technology. More than 40 years of research on food irradiation shows that the process is trustworthy.
However, the Canadian public still needs to know how their food is prepared. Although Canadian labelling rules for prepackaged food are strict, most consumers are still oblivious to the fact that they eat irradiated food products every day.
That needs to change. Proper labelling should allow consumers to accept the technology, or at very least make a choice, as American shoppers can when choosing beef products.
Health Canada conducted an exhaustive study on irradiation in 2002 and determined that Canadians were not ready. Since then, consumers have begun to show signs of acceptance, just as they have accepted genetically-engineered crops. Indeed, some Canadian consumer groups are now very supportive. And studies are making a case that better technology must be used to make our food safer and more affordable.
It is important, of course, to remember that science is not an absolute. Research should always continue to better understand emerging risks and develop better technology to mitigate those risks.
We once harboured similar fears about microwave ovens. Today, more than 90 per cent of Canadian households have a microwave. Barely anyone expresses concerns about the technology that has made our lives easier. It’s human nature that, over time, technology becomes part of us.
Soon enough, the benefits of food irradiation will overwhelm Canadians’ fear of the technology.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.