The expected consumer outcry over irradiated ground beef has been more of a whisper — a complete sea change from the early 2000s when the technology was first proposed.
“Many consumer groups are receptive to the concept, much more so than 14 years ago when Health Canada was seriously considering moving forward on this,” said food marketing expert Sylvain Charlebois.
“It seems that the landscape has changed regarding irradiated beef.”
Health Canada first broached the idea of irradiating ground beef — a process that kills bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella — in 2002, but quickly shelved the idea due to lack of consumer support.
But following Health Canada’s announcement in late May that it will soon propose regulations allowing irradiation in ground beef, consumers seem to have changed their tune, said Charlebois, dean of the faculty of management at Dalhousie University.
“I think more and more people are understanding that there’s always a risk in anything we do, but there are ways to mitigate the risks. If the technology exists, why not use it? I think that’s where the Canadian population is right now.”
Beef industry expert Mark Klassen agrees.
“Most polls would indicate that the majority of Canadians is in support of allowing the sale of irradiated ground beef,” said Klassen, director of technical services for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
“There is growing support, and one of the reasons I say that is because of the support from the Consumer Association of Canada for our irradiation submission. They’ve been fairly vocal about their support for this in the media.”
Klassen attributes that change to a better understanding of the technology.
“The more education that you provide to consumers about what the process of irradiation is, the higher the support levels,” said Klassen.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association first petitioned the government to approve irradiation in ground beef in 1998, and at that time, “Health Canada confirmed that irradiation was safe and effective. That was the scientific part of it,” he said.
“It’s frustrating because, from a scientific perspective, we know this is a good thing — but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a challenge to communicate this,” said Klassen.
“The reality is that, even when things are proven by science, it can take an awful long time for them to be accepted.”
Despite the fact that there is “little or no risk” associated with irradiation, consumers have been fearful of the technology, in part because the process involves radiation similar to that of X-rays, said Charlebois.
“Over the years, I think there has been some concern that it would make food radioactive, and that’s not the case,” he said.
It’s similar to the reaction consumers had about microwave ovens when they were first introduced, he added.
“In the 1970s, there was some fear expressed by some consumers about the use of microwave ovens but now, since we understand the technology, 90 per cent of households have them,” he said.
The real issue is labelling, said Charlebois.
“If you give a clear choice to consumers about what they’re buying, you’re giving them a chance to befriend the technology,” said Charlebois, adding that that wasn’t done with GMOs.
“If you’re allowing them to understand that there are some things they’re already buying that have been irradiated, like onions, potatoes, and spices, you do give them a chance to understand that these products are part of the food chain and irradiation is part of how we mitigate risks in that process.
“We need to recognize how powerful risk perceptions can be, and that needs to be addressed. We need to properly communicate risks through labels and education.”
And ultimately, consumers will be given that choice, said Klassen.
“This is not intended to be a mandatory process,” he said. “This is a product that will be clearly labelled. This will be a choice.
“We understand that not all Canadians will elect to purchase irradiated ground beef, and that’s fine. But it’s a different thing if we’re preventing others who may wish to purchase it from doing so.”