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What’s the beef about irradiated beef?</

Canadian cattle industry to petition Health Canada to allow irradiated beef

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After 13 years, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), which represents the country’s beef cattle industry, seeks to petition Health Canada for the second time to allow beef to be irradiated. Since the news got out that CCA would be submitting the petition, it has sparked a lot of discussion over irradiated foods, many of which have been misinformed arguments. decided to get the scoop from the industry and the professionals themselves about what the process of irradiated beef entails and discuss some of the common misconceptions about the process.

The CCA plans to petition Health Canada to allow beef to be irradiated. This will be the second-time that the industry group has requested such a measure, with the first time being in 1998. The difference this time, is that application will be requesting to allow approval for all types of beef products to be irradiated compared to just ground beef. The United States has already permitted the use of irradiated beef for over a decade, since May of 2000; and the cattle industry is advocating that Canadian consumers should be able to have the same choice as their U.S. counterparts.

The process of irradiation

Mark Klassen, Director of Technical Services for the Canadian Cattlemen Association explains how the word irradiation is unfamiliar to most consumers – which can pose a problem when seeking to gain acceptance for this type of process. “The main thing is that the word irradiation is so new to people - even though the technology itself is more than a 100 years old…what we need to do is educate consumers,” said Klassen.

Klassen says the process is simple. “Essentially, you’ve got a conveyer belt; you’ve got a beam which works almost like a flashlight…and the product goes a long this conveyer belt and goes underneath this beam and comes out the other end.” The e-beam can be described as a higher energy version of what was found in older TV-sets, which is the same technology that would be used in food irradiation.

University of Guelph Professor Dr. Keith Warriner who specializes in food microbiology reiterates a lot of Kasson’s interpretation of the irradiation process as it pertains to meat. “The product is put in containers, because the irradiation is actually done when it’s in a packed product – it is not done when it’s a free product…because you don’t want the food to be contaminated after the irradiation,” adds Warriner. “The meat product is put in a chamber and this chamber then gets bombarded with these ionizing irradiation doze…gets treated and comes back out again,” explains Warriner.

Is there a difference between irradiated vegetables and meat?

Health Canada has already approved potatoes, onions and spices to be irradiated, but Dr. Warriner says there is a difference between irradiated vegetables and meat like beef. “The difference is the purpose and the doze required,” explains Warriner. In the case of vegetables and spices, irradiation is used to kill insects’ pests and prevent sprouting.  “What we try to do is…to ensure that they [vegetables and spices] are free of insects or pests which would devastate our agriculture and we also extend the shelf- life, but preventing them [vegetables] from sprouting,” says Warriner.  In meat, the concern is about pathogens like E. coli 0157.

Warriner explains that in his mind, most of the misconceptions about irradiation stems from the Cold War. “Perhaps the biggest misconception is that it [irradiation] makes the food radioactive,” noting that it doesn’t. The second misconception is that the process will be taken advantage of and misused for food that’s been rejected and then sold again as good. Warriner also says that some consumers believe that if this process was approved that it’s an indication that the meat processing facility can’t control contamination during the process. Lastly, Warriner says that there are also some consumers who are concerned about nutrient loss. “…You do get some nutrient loss but it’s not that significant,” says Warriner.

If approved where would the process or irradiation occur and how much would it cost?

If the petition is successful, in the short to medium-term it’s likely that there will be facilities that would be dedicated to the purpose of irradiation. In the long-term there could be an opportunity to incorporate the process at the meat processing facility – which could have benefits from an efficiency standpoint. When asked about cost of the process, Klassen says that it depends on the efficiency that can be captured, noting his best estimate would be 10-cents per pound of additional cost.

Why was the 1998 petition unsuccessful?

According to Klassen, the reason why Health Canada rejected their 1998 petition was not due to the effectiveness or safety of the process, but rather the issue was that there were too many consumer health concerns. While Health Canada found positives in its review of the safety of the process, how well it reduced microorganisms and if it reduced nutrient content – consumer concerns outweighed the science.

How the cattle industry views irradiation

The Canadian cattle industry feels strongly that if irradiation was approved, it would be an important tool to help reduce E. coli strain 0157. “…when we look back at other important health measures that we now all accept – milk pasteurization, water chlorination, vaccination…every one of those was subject to a period when they were not at all widely accepted and controversial,” explains Klassen. The industry doesn’t want to give up on the possibility that irradiation could be used as a process in Canada, noting that irradiated beef should be recognized as a process that would enhance public health. Klassen shares that the industry does believe that their efforts will be rewarded, but remains cautiously optimistic.

What would the approval of irradiated beef mean for consumers?

The earliest that the cattle industry would hear back on the status of their application would be in one year’s time. While the application is requesting approval for all beef products, the industry believes that the most demand from consumers will be for ground beef to be treated by irradiation. Klassen says that Canadian cattle producers want to deliver the best food safety technology to their consumers, noting that choice is a big part of what they are trying to petition for. “Approval would mean a choice to purchase a product that has undergone treatment, by the most effective food safety intervention that we have not already implemented in Canada,” explains Klassen. The industry believes that irradiated beef should be an informed choice, with labels on packages which have been irradiated.

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