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Beach Beat: Oh Canada, what’s the beef with irradiated beef?

Opinion

Canadians have 10 days left if they wish to weigh in on the question of whether their government should allow ground beef to be irradiated to kill pathogens such as E. coli.

It’s the second time this century that Health Canada has sought public comment on the topic. In 2002 a backlash of public opinion saw the federal agency abandon a plan to allow irradiation of ground fresh and frozen beef.

beach-beatLaura Rance, editor of the “Manitoba Co-operator” and author of the blog “Rural Revival” for the Winnipeg Free Press newspaper summed up the 2002 situation in recent days with six words: “People simply didn’t like the idea.”

She reported that documents posted after the fact by Health Canada show the 2002 proposal drew 1,700 public comments. The agency says most of the opposition came from “misconceptions about irradiated food products and skepticism surrounding the science and safety of irradiation,” Rance wrote in a recent post.

With the comment deadline set for Sept. 1, Rance explained that Health Canada hasn’t shared any information yet about the comments received so far this time around. No matter what you think of the U.S. government, you’ve got to love the fact that public comments are available for all to see almost instantaneously when filed on www.regulations.gov.

But let’s get back to the beef.

Health Canada says the current review — as with the 2002 exercise — stems from industry requests.

logo National Farmers Union of CanadaThe National Farmers Union, which consists of family-owned farms, pointed out recently the request didn’t come from the entire industry. The organization says irradiation is something big ag wants.

“Canada’s beef packing industry is dominated by two foreign-owned multinational corporations that slaughter over 90 percent of federally inspected beef in Canada: JBS and Cargill, with headquarters in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Minnetonka, Minnesota respectively,” according to comments the National Farmers Union submitted to Health Canada earlier this month.

“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/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.”

In addition to the big ag argument, the National Farmers Union contends that allowing irradiation of ground beef would encourage producers to cut food safety corners in processing plants because there would be sense of security with irradiation at the end of the process. The group also believes approving irradiation for ground beef will translate into lost jobs.

Labor issues and the family-farm lifestyle aside, this is a question of food safety. And it’s a question that Health Canada should answer with a resounding “yes.” Irradiation of beef, especially ground beef, should be added to the food safety toolbox in the Great White North.

industrial meat grinder“Irradiation is a technology, similar to pasteurization of milk, that can save lives,” Rance said in her recent blog in the Winnipeg newspaper. “It won’t mean other food-safety processes can be abandoned or consumers don’t need to know how to cook.”

Well said, my fellow newswoman.

What more do Canadians need to persuade them to step up food safety efforts than the 2008 Listeria monocytogenes contamination of processed meats sold by Maple Leaf and the 2012 E. coli scare that resulted in XL Beef recalling 890,000 pounds of meat.

Irradiation kills bacteria including E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella, Campylobacter. It doesn’t change the nutritional value or taste of food. It doesn’t make food radioactive. It does reduce spoilage and extend the usable life of foods. What’s not to like?

Canadians may not be aware that their government already allows the irradiation of onions, potatoes, wheat, flour, whole and ground spices and dehydrated seasonings. It’s particularly important for spices, which have repeatedly been shown to be among the most contaminated food items.

Both the Canadian and U.S. governments require special labeling on any foods that have been irradiated, so there’s no danger of someone unknowingly buying it if they don’t want it.

The international radura symbol, left, varies slightly from the version used in the U.S., at right.

The international radura symbol, left, varies slightly from the version used in the U.S., at right.

The radura is a distinctive symbol that is used worldwide. Canada also requires that prepackaged foods that contain more than 10 percent of irradiated ingredients must indicate the irradiated component on their ingredient labels.

Irradiation is a cold process that involves exposing food to a stringently controlled amount of ionizing radiation from gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams. The irradiating process breaks bonds in the DNA of bacteria, destroying them or making them unable to reproduce.

In addition to Health Canada, the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, other entities that approve of irradiation as a food safety tool include the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and about 60 other countries. The process has been studied extensively for more than 40 years and is deemed safe and effective.

Still not convinced?

Companies in the U.S. that have embraced irradiation specifically to increase the safety of beef include Omaha Steaks irradiates its ground beef. Schwan’s Food Service irradiates all of the ground beef it uses in its foods. The New England grocery retail chain Wegmans Food Markets — a leader in food safety efforts across all departments — has been irradiating beef since 2002.

Oh yah, NASA irradiates food for astronauts to reduce chances of food poisoning in space. Can you imagine diarrhea and vomiting in zero-G?

Here’s hoping Health Canada does the right thing and OKs the use of this safe, effective technology for ground beef.

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