Irradiating ground beef a decade-old hot potato

Staff with Canada’s cattle producer body once thought it would be just a matter of time before Canadian food companies would get the green light to start irradiating ground beef.

That was a decade ago, when the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association submitted a petition to Health Canada seeking regulatory approval for use of irradiation as another tool to reduce pathogens in meat.

At year’s end in 2000, things looked promising. Health Canada had given the proposal a favourable recommendation and public consultations were ahead.

Now, "I’m not entirely sure to this day why we don’t have the ability to use this," said Mark Klassen, director of technical services with the CCA.

"The best I understand is there were concerns whether the public would accept this."

Fear of a consumer backlash — as per comments logged during consultations throughout 2003 — did, in fact, spook government.

Health Canada completed its scientific review of CCA’s submission that year — as well as those asking for permission to irradiate poultry, shrimp, prawns, and mangoes. A regulatory proposal was published in the Canada Gazette on Nov. 23, 2002 and a recommended Canadian code of practice for food irradiation developed. Then, nothing happened.

A prepared statement released by Health Canada last week said it was "because of significant public concerns related to irradiation" that the government did not move forward with regulations at the time.

There are no plans to do so in the foreseeable future either, it said.

But when it becomes significant public concerns about food, Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers Association of Canada (CAC), says it’s time to pay attention to what people are really worried about — getting sick from foodborne illness — and to take more measures to stop it.

Too wary

"Canadians believe this should be an available option," he said. "We would like the government to do whatever it has to do."

A CAC survey released earlier this year show Canadians, while divided, are willing to have irradiated meat become available as a clearly labelled product choice.

Conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion, it found that while Canadians don’t really understand the process of food irradiation, they are most certainly concerned about food contaminants.

Two in five (45 per cent) said they were "very concerned" about the presence of foodborne illness causing bacteria in both chicken, hamburger and deli meat. Eleven per cent also said they were "very likely" and 43 per cent "somewhat likely" to consider irradiated meat as a choice for their household.

Had the time that has elapsed been used to raise awareness about irradiation and how it works, more would probably support it, said Cran.

Health Canada does post on its own website information about irradiation, including that irradiation does not diminish the nutritional value of food, leaves no radioactive energy in it nor changes the food in any way to have adverse effects on health. It also acknowledges that irradiation does cause minor chemical modifications, similar to cooking, in food.

"We’re ready"

International bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), have long recognized irradiation as a safe and scientifically valid means of reducing levels of organisms that cause foodborne illness — and it is used in many other countries including the U.S., according to University of Manitoba food scientist Rick Holley.

It’s time Canada looked at this again, he said.

"I am firmly convinced that we’ve got something here that we just haven’t taken advantage of in terms of what it can do to protect us from the organisms that just naturally occur in the agricultural environment."

Holley is now completing a two-year research project, funded by the Beef Cattle Research Council, investigating the effectiveness of low-dose gamma and electron beam irradiation on ground beef.

He said he thinks the government won’t move forward with regulation on use of irradiation until industry starts asking for it again.

"I think they’re just sitting there waiting for industry to come forward and industry is reluctant to do it because they’re worried that there may be an unexpected backlash," he said.

"But I also think we’ve reached the point now where, in terms of the public’s understanding of what the technology does to food and the potential of what it can do in terms of reducing contamination, that we’re ready for the technology to be introduced to the country."

The CCA’s Klassen said he recently inquired about the status of the association’s original petition, adding that the group is wondering if the whole process must start over to get this moving again.

"We’ve been trying to find that out."

– Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator at Carman, Man. A version of this article appeared in the Nov. 19, 2012 edition of Alberta Farmer.