Health Canada plans to suggest amendments to the country’s Food and Drug Regulations in June which would add ground beef to the list of foods permitted to undergo radiation treatment before being sold in Canada.
The rationale behind changing the regulations is that irradiation of raw ground beef will prevent the spread of E. coli and other foodborne pathogens. However, Canadian health officials are well aware that public reaction to the idea has been negative so far.
The proposal was floated by Health Canada in 20o2 but was never finalized, reportedly due to “mostly negative stakeholder reaction” and a general public skepticism that irradiation is safe.
The plan was revived in 2013 after the 2012 beef recall by XL Foods Inc. in Brooks, Alberta. The largest beef recall in Canadian history, it involved 8 million pounds of beef, and the related E. coli O157:H7 outbreak sickened at least 18 Canadians.
Industry groups north of the border have long advocated irradiation of beef and say that the time is right to initiate the practice. Some would also like to see chicken and salad vegetables irradiated prior to sale.
“I think public perception has changed,” said Mark Klassen, director of technical services with the Albert-based Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. “When we ask Canadians if they think they should be able to purchase irradiated beef, they’re accepting of it.”
However, critics of food irradiation say that it produces toxins such as benzene, reduces a food’s nutritional value, and changes the taste of the meat. Some claim that factory farms and feedlots want to irradiate meat so they can continue putting large numbers of animals into small, confined spaces where the animals, along with their water and food, are exposed to large amounts of feces.
“These huge operations are the cause of these illnesses. That’s more than speculation,” Lucy Sharratt of the Ottawa-based Polaris Institute told Digital Journal, adding, “The food industry is happy with the longer shelf life for these products and it puts a benign face on the nuclear technology by putting it in every kitchen.”
Health Canada spokeswoman Maryse Durette said the proposed regulations will be announced next month in the Canada Gazette and that a 75-day public consultation period will follow. She also said that if irradiated frozen or fresh ground beef were approved for sale in the Canadian marketplace, it would need to be labeled as such.
If the government allows raw ground beef to be irradiated before retail sale in Canada, it would join the following food items on that country’s approved list: onions, potatoes, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, whole or ground spices, and dehydrated seasonings.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration allows irradiation of food by X-rays or electron beam. Current FDA regulations permit the following foods to be irradiated before sale in the U.S.: beef, pork, crustaceans (lobster, shrimp and crab), fresh fruits and vegetables, lettuce and spinach, molluscan shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels and scallops), poultry, seeds for sprouting (such as alfalfa sprouts), shell eggs, and spices and seasonings.
Irradiated foods sold in the U.S. must be labeled with the international symbol for irradiation (the Radura), plus the statement “Treated with radiation,” or “Treated by irradiation” on the food label. Bulk foods, including fruits and vegetables, must either be individually labeled or have a label next to the sale container. FDA does not require individual ingredients in multi-ingredient foods such as spices to be labeled.
FDA includes this statement on its consumer information website about irradiation of foods: “It is important to remember that irradiation is not a replacement for proper food-handling practices by producers, processors and consumers. Irradiated foods need to be stored, handled and cooked in the same way as non-irradiated foods, because they could still become contaminated with disease-causing organisms after irradiation if the rules of basic food safety are not followed.”
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)