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Plan to irradiate ground beef could reduce food-borne illnesses

Respiratory syncytial virus, 3D illustration which shows structure of virus of two types of surface spikes.
Photo of Cheryl Ogaranko CHERYL OGARANKO
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, November 18, 2016

Are Canadians ready to consume irradiated ground beef? We may soon find out.
Earlier this year, Health Canada announced it was proposing regulatory changes that would allow for the sale of irradiated ground beef in Canada. The proposed changes have been posted on Health Canada’s website and the public comment period has ended. The proposed changes must be approved by the federal cabinet before going into effect, and a decision is expected in the near future. 

The proposal has sparked some discussion about the pros and cons of such a move.

Food irradiation has long been touted as a method of improving the safety, quality and shelf-life of various foods. In the case of ground beef, proponents of irradiation say it would reduce the risk posed by harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli.

But some consumers question whether using ionizing radiation to treat food is safe. And some farm groups worry that processors may use irradiation as an excuse to avoid taking other safety precautions in processing meat. The following Q&A is designed to address some of these issues.

What is food irradiation?

Irradiation is a treatment when food is exposed to a controlled amount of radiation from a gamma energy source for a controlled period of time. It is not a new process, but has been undergoing testing that began shortly after Second World War.

What are the capabilities of food irradiation?

Essentially, irradiation can improve the safety and shelf life of food by:

  • Delaying the ripening in such foods as mushrooms, bananas and other tropical fruits, allowing them to be transported over long distances. 
  • Controlling insects in grain, grain products and fruits.
  • Extending shelf-life of food by destroying bacteria, mold and fungus.
  • Controlling bacteria in egg products, meat and animal feeds.

What foods may be irradiated now?

Currently, Canadian regulations permit the sale of irradiated potatoes, wheat, wheat flour, spices and dehydrated seasonings. However, the process appears to be used mainly for spices.

Do other countries allow food irradiation?

Over 50 countries permit the sale of irradiated food. China uses this process the most, and Mexico is increasing the quantity of food it treats. The United States has also approved a variety of foods for irradiation including poultry, beef, pork, lobster, shrimp, crab, fresh fruits and vegetables, shellfish, spices and seasonings. Interesting fact: astronauts with NASA eat meat sterilized by irradiation to prevent foodborne illness while in space.

How safe is it?

To many people, the word irradiation means danger. However, it does not make food radioactive or increase human exposure to radiation. Research shows that food irradiation is a safe and effective way to destroy bacteria in foods, extend shelf life and reduce insect infestation. Some say radiation can destroy vitamins and ruin the flavor, smell, appearance and texture of food, but more research is needed to test the effects of different dosages of radiation on a wider variety of food.

How will I know if food is irradiated?

Packaged foods with at least 10 per cent of the ingredients irradiated must display a symbol and statement to that effect. Stores selling irradiated, non-packaged foods are required to have a sign saying the item is irradiated.

Can food still go bad if it is irradiated?

Irradiating food is no substitute for proper storage, preparation and cooking of food. It is possible for irradiated food to become contaminated after it has been treated. For this reason, proper storage, handling and cooking are still important.

How long before irradiated ground beef appears in local supermarkets?

That remains to be seen. As noted on Health Canada’s website, a previous move to change regulations to permit the irradiation of ground beef was dropped in 2002 in part because of public anxiety over irradiated meat. Since then, according to a report on the website, polls suggest that public opinion on irradiated meat has changed. But even if the regulations are changed to approve the sale of irradiated beef, it will be up to processors and retailers to determine how quickly they will make this product available to the public.

Cheryl Ogaranko is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Nov. 18, 2016.

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