Food irradiation of beef
Why are we so reluctant to adopt safe and effective technology to improve food safety?
The 2009 Weatherill Report on the Maple Leaf Foods outbreak and the 2012 Independent Review of XL Foods Inc.’s beef recall each made a number of recommendations toward improving the food safety of meats. One recommendation common to both reports was to permit the use of irradiation. This past June, Health Canada finally published in Canada Gazette, Part I, its second attempt to amend regulations to permit irradiation of fresh and frozen beef. So why has it taken so long for this proposal to reappear, and why are we so reluctant to adopt safe and effective technology to improve food safety?
Who is driving the food safety bus?
Given the benefits of safer food and reduced waste, one might think that both the public and industry would be clamoring for the adoption of food irradiation of beef. No so. Health Canada’s first attempt to amend regulations to permit irradiation of beef in 2002 received over 1,700 responses, most of which were from misinformed consumers and consumer associations who opposed the idea. Consequently, irradiation of beef was dropped, an action that clearly showed that a misinformed public was driving the food safety agenda or, as I put it, the food safety bus. What’s behind the public paranoia?
To some people, the words “radiation” and “irradiation” both conjure gruesome images of victims in the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. If not that, then there might be a connection to other negatives like the diagnosis and treatment of cancers, Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown. Those stridently opposed to food irradiation even try to make a connection between food irradiation and GMOs, hoping to capitalize on the same audience of fearfully paranoid and/or misinformed individuals.
On the other hand, we fearlessly toss aside concerns about radiation and irradiation when we sit in a dentist’s chair for an x-ray to confirm that our teeth are not rotting. The use of radioactive isotopes to kill malignant cells inside our bodies is a common medical procedure. We ingest without question radioactive isotopes for common medical procedures like CAT and MRI scans. Every home has at least one detector to alert us of the presence of carbon monoxide and natural gas leaks, and most of these use radioactive isotopes. Applications of energy from radiation emitting sources are all around us today, including our cell phones.
Health Canada’s rationale
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association approached Health Canada (HC) in May 2013 to resubmit their 1998 application with “minor changes.” HC then did another review of the effectiveness and safety of the application, its impact on nutritional safety and food quality, the toxicological safety, and the appropriateness of available technologies. After its review, HC concluded “that the irradiation of ground beef…is safe, effective, and does not significantly impact the nutritional quality of the beef any more than cooking would.” In effect, it came to the same conclusions it reached a decade earlier and revalidated why only irradiated foods have been used in space exploration for decades.
Not to let science alone drive a good decision, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada commissioned an online survey in 2014 to gauge consumer perception on a number of topics including that of food irradiation. The survey revealed that 72 per cent of survey respondents hadn’t heard of food irradiation and that “overall perceptions of food irradiation” could be changed when people understood the benefits. Still skittish of a backlash, HC did two rounds of consultations in 2015 which “reaffirmed” stakeholder support for the irradiation of beef.
Food irradiation can meaningfully reduce the horrendous human and financial costs arising from food illnesses. Health Canada’s second attempt to amend legislation that would permit irradiation of fresh and frozen beef needs strong support. Everyone in our industry, including our provincial and federal governments, must contribute much more to this country’s food safety agenda. We have an obligation to educate consumers about food safety and counter the myths and misinformation hijacking good science.