Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/8/2016 (306 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Ask anyone on the street whether they want to eat safe food, and undoubtedly the answer would be yes. Experiencing a food-borne illness is not only unpleasant, it can be deadly.
But technologies such as irradiation that can make food safer have historically been a tough sell. A public backlash caused Health Canada to nix its plan in 2002 to allow ground fresh and frozen beef to be irradiated. People simply didn’t like the idea.
Treating food products with ionizing radiation can reduce the presence of mould, E coli, salmonella, campylobacter and parasites without reducing nutrition or food quality. International authorities such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization agree it is safe.
Although the technology has been approved for use in Canada since 2002 on potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, whole and ground spices and dehydrated seasoning preparations, it is currently mostly just used on spices — if at all.
This summer, Health Canada is asking Canadians for their thoughts once again after the beef industry petitioned for the option of using the food-safety technology.
Independent inquiries into the 2008 listeriosis contamination of processed meats sold by Maple Leaf, and the 2012 E. coli crisis affecting XL Beef, recommended Canada fast-track new technologies that contribute to food safety.
The public comment period ends Sept. 1, and the federal department isn’t commenting on how much interest has been shown.
The 2002 proposal drew 1,700 comments, most of them opposed because of "misconceptions about irradiated food products and skepticism surrounding the science and safety of irradiation," background documents posted to Health Canada’s website say.
This time around, a survey of consumer perceptions in 2014 suggests public sentiments range from comfortably oblivious to vaguely supportive.
"Although the vast majority of respondents (72 per cent) had not heard of food irradiation, overall perceptions of food irradiation were slightly more positive (30 per cent) than negative (21 per cent) when respondents were informed that irradiation is a food-safety measure that reduces levels of bacteria that cause food poisoning and food spoilage."
As well, survey respondents were adamant (83 per cent) irradiated food should be labelled. That’s considered a "positive shift" in public opinion.
However, the National Farmers Union is opposed. It argues allowing irradiation will lead to further consolidation in the beef-processing sector, which would allow processors to pay farmers less and charge consumers more.
"Canada’s beef-packing industry is dominated by two foreign-owned multinational corporations that slaughter over 90 per cent of federally inspected beef in Canada: JBS and Cargill. … irradiation equipment is costly, thus we can assume that these two companies would be in the best position to benefit from the proposed regulatory change."
The union also says irradiation is simply a "mop-up operation" to compensate for unsanitary conditions, inadequate procedures and poor inspection systems. And while it kills the bacteria-causing toxins, it says it won’t treat toxins already created.
The union’s position has some merit. The industry looks to technology to fix problems that need not exist. For example, the toxin E. coli O157 is virtually non-existent in grass-fed beef. It forms in the highly acidic rumens of grain-fed cattle that arrive at slaughter plants with feedlot manure on their hides. If there was no E. coli in the manure, or the manure never crossed paths with the meat during processing, there would be no need for irradiation.
However, suggesting irradiation should be shunned because it won’t eliminate all the risk is somewhat akin to saying don’t bother washing your hands because you won’t get all the germs.
The reality is, most of us eat beef that has been raised this way. Irradiation is a technology, similar to pasteurization of milk, that can save lives.
It won’t mean other food-safety processes can be abandoned or consumers don’t need to know how to cook.
It simply means there is one more tool in the food-safety box.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator and editorial director for Farm Business Communications. She can be reached at email@example.com or 204-792-4382.