Food irradition: A historical perspective
The story of food irradiation is enshrouded in misconceptions, despite the safety of such foods being overwhelmingly supported by decades of research
Food irradiation is not new to Canada. In fact it is not new at all. From a global view point, some of the first patents related to food irradiation date back more than a century. In the late 1950s the former Soviet Union and West Germany were among the first to introduce commercialized irradiated food. And in 1960 Canada introduced irradiation of potatoes to inhibit sprouting.
Prior to the last major amendments to the Federal Food and Drug Regulations (FDR) in 1989, food irradiation was governed in Canada as a food additive. Ingredient lists used to declare the source of irradiation, as if it was added to the food. That is a bit odd as the food itself does not contain and does not come into direct contact with emitting sources. Foods are treated with a source of energy, known more precisely as “ionizing radiation.”
In the early years, the Canadian government wanted to strictly govern food irradiation. At the time the most convenient way was to govern irradiation as a food additive, which require prior approval before being permitted in food. The current FDR definition of a “food additive” speaks of these as a substance or its by-products becoming part of the food or affecting its characteristics. In 1989, after almost a decade of debate, Health Canada (HC) set up new mechanism governing irradiation as a process, creating a whole new food irradiation division in the FDR. The labelling of irradiated food was also amended, and included the debut of the international Radura symbol on Canadian food labels.
Food irradiation is strictly regulated in Canada. There are only a handful of foods that are currently permitted to be irradiated, including potatoes and onions to inhibit sprouting during storage, wheat flour to control insect infestation, and spices and dehydrated seasoning preparations to reduce microbial load. Currently the permitted sources of ionizing radiation include Cobalt-60, Cesium 137 and machine source electrons. Contrary to the incorrect belief, irradiated foods are not radioactive. When HC evaluates their safety and efficacy, it looks at many factors, including the microbial and toxicological safety, as well as the nutritional quality and wholesome of the food.
The story of food irradiation is enshrouded in misconceptions, despite the safety of such foods being overwhelmingly supported by decades of research. That public perception has been the cause of delay in approving new applications. In 2002 HC published proposed regulations in Canada Gazette I related to irradiating mangoes, fresh and frozen beef and poultry, and fresh, frozen and dried shrimp and prawns. Those were never finalized, despite a successful safety and efficacy evaluation. The reason, noted HC, was the large number of questions from stakeholders. In simpler terms, HC lost appetite in the matter because of the lack of public support.
At that time the public’s perception of food irradiation was perhaps at its lowest. An Ipsos Reid poll of 3,000 individuals commissioned by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in 2014 found that the overall perception of food irradiation was positive when respondents were informed that it was a food safety measure that reduces levels of bacteria that cause food poisoning and food spoilage. It was, however, only marginally more positive at 30 per cent, compared to 21 per cent who had negative views. Seventy-two per cent of respondents had not even heard of food irradiation.
This June HC published proposed regulations in Canada Gazette I that, if finalized, would permit the irradiation of fresh and frozen ground beef. The conclusion that this is safe and effective is based in part on the 2002 HC review. Since then there has been new information available, such as more relevant nutritional data, and new in vitro, in vivo and metabolism studies, which support the safety of irradiation. There are currently more than 60 countries permitting foods to be irradiated (23 which allow the irradiation of beef), with more than 500,000 metric tonnes produced annually.
The proposed regulations would not make it mandatory to irradiate ground beef – that would be up to the manufacturer. Prepackaged irradiated ground beef would, however, need to be labelled, while irradiated ground beef that is not prepackaged would have to be identified on signage next to the food. The same has always been true for other irradiated ingredients like wheat flour, onions, potatoes, and spices and seasonings.
The success of the irradiated ground beef proposal and its acceptance by the Canadian public rests in its perception, and consumers fear what they do not know. While science demonstrates irradiated foods are safe and effective in reducing microbial load and food waste, it may still be a tough sell to consumers.