RaduraThe government of Canada’s announcement this week of changes to its food and drug regulations to permit irradiation of ground beef was not a surprise. It was a long time coming, though, with industry having requested the change in 1998.

Canada has already approved radiation to treat potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, spices and seasoning preparations.

The United States has permitted the irradiation of fresh and frozen ground beef since 1999. More than 60 countries permit irradiation of various foods to kill pathogens and/or pests. Health Canada published the new regulations on Wednesday.

Canadian officials said the government views the technology as another tool for use by the beef industry in improving food safety. Irradiation is not intended to replace existing food safety practices for handling, storage and sanitation. It’s purpose is to complement those practices.

Irradiation reduces levels of harmful bacteria, such as E, coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter, as well as preventing premature spoilage, and extending shelf life. It does so by exposing food to energy with ionizing radiation.

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.

Health Canada found that ground beef subjected to irradiation retains its nutritional values, taste, texture and appearance. Irradiated foods must carry a both a written description and the Radura symbol. If not packaged, Canada requires the information be made available at the point of sale.

According to the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), irradiation “is a safe and simple process that uses energy to destroy harmful bacteria on food products.” NAMI says the energy passes through the product, much like microwaves pass through food in a microwave oven. There is no energy or residue left in the product, nor is the product “cooked” in the process.

Canada is permitting the use of irradiation, but not requiring its use. Ionizing radiation from gamma rays, electron beams or X-rays may be used. Food irradiation does not make food radioactive.

Health Canada found any chemical changes to food due to irradiation as “minor.” Such food still has to handled, cooked and stored like any other.

Canada also has a trio of regulators to ensure irradiation safety, including:

  • The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for all enforcement and compliance issues related to irradiated foods, including ground beef.
  • Health Canada’s Radiation Protection Bureau is responsible for managing the exposure of Canadians to radiation from all living, working, and recreational environments, including maintaining dose records.
  • And finally, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulates the use of nuclear energy in the country. It establishes regulations that food irradiation facility must comply with.

In addition to food, Canada permits the use of irradiation to sterilize medical disposables, hospital supplies, food packing materials, cosmetic ingredients and joint implants.

Health Canada last considered irradiation of ground beef in 2002. It was recently asked to reconsider, and granted approval with new regulations for fresh or frozen ground beef as published in Canada Gazette the Canadian version of the U.S. Federal Register.

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