Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Food irradiation -- a gift horse?

Real progress in cutting food-borne illness turns on irradiation

  • Print

Canadians who were alarmed by the recent outbreak of E. coli sickness from beef should know that pathogen contamination in processing plants cannot be prevented. If we really want to prevent outbreaks, we have to look at expanded use of irradiation.

Health Canada data show food-borne illness is a close second to diabetes in terms of pressure on the health system. Accurate yearly analysis is not possible because food-borne illness is voluntarily and inconsistently reported by provinces and territories to the national reporting system.

Available data show little progress in resolving challenges associated with contaminated food either here or in the U.S. There is concern -- because there is no strategy to implement interventions or ability to evaluate their effectiveness -- that safe food in Canada is more by accident than by design.

The provinces and territories are finally establishing performance objectives limiting frequencies of poultry carcass contamination by Salmonella and Campylobacter. Unfortunately, compliance with these standards cannot be measured against changes in rates of human illness from poultry consumption because a yardstick does not exist. It is these kinds of well-intentioned but unco-ordinated programs that drain resources, spawn complacency and ultimately obstruct our ability to understand the root causes of the problems and fix them.

The food we eat is often contaminated by pathogens that do not cause symptoms in plants and animals, but make people sick. In recent years, 25 per cent of food-borne illnesses in the U.S. have come from crops contaminated by Salmonella, toxigenic E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes. In contrast, just 25 years ago produce was believed responsible for less than one per cent of food-borne illnesses.

While there is now better reporting and detection, the rise in frequency of illness is due also to changes in production and processing methods, larger and more integrated farms and changes in pathogen occurrence.

The economics of plant agriculture have meant animal manures are used more often in production. Since the outbreak of mad cow disease 10 years ago, farmers can't feed rendered cows as an animal feed, so they've turned to oilseed protein as a substitute. Animal manures and oil seed protein (soy, canola) are frequently contaminated by Salmonella and often by toxigenic E. coli, and thus they are continuously recycled in the farm environment where they are accumulating.

Organic and local production cannot protect us because this recycling is common to them. Although meat processing plant contamination by Listeria can be controlled, Listeria on produce and Campylobacter on poultry are not well understood or controlled in Canada, meaning they have free access to our kitchens.

Food irradiation is the most intensively studied of all technologies used to process food. In spite of what its detractors may contend, evidence from over 100 years of study show it can effectively reduce pathogen contamination of foods at levels that do not create toxicity, affect its wholesomeness or nutritional adequacy.

Canadian approvals have been in place since the 1960s for treatment of potatoes, onions, wheat flour, spices and dry seasonings. Specific approvals for food irradiation exist in over 55 countries, including the EU.

In the U.S., irradiation of mangoes and a variety of produce, shrimp, poultry and red meat at specified doses is permitted and about seven to eight million kilograms of irradiated ground beef is consumed annually.

Irradiation of produce at low dose in international trade is gaining acceptance, largely because it replaces pesticide use for quarantine control of insects.

Obstacles to irradiation adoption include its availability, costs of the technology, and concern about public perception.

Irradiation will not hide incompetence in industry practice and electron beams do not generate radioactive waste. Slow adoption of food irradiation is mainly due to psychological and political barriers.

A majority of Canadian consumers now support food irradiation and both the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada have clear policies that favour its expanded use to improve food safety. However, there has been no change in Canadian food irradiation legislation since 2002.

Expanded zero tolerance legislation for pathogens like toxigenic E. coli in raw foods is not the solution; the only certainties with this approach are more testing and greater waste with nothing left to eat. We are at a point of diminishing returns in food safety measures, and the last remaining viable solution to pathogen contamination is irradiation. If poultry alone were irradiated to eliminate Campylobacter (the major cause of food-borne illness) and Salmonella, data show that food-borne illness in Canada would be reduced immediately by 25 per cent.

Concerns regarding expanded use of food irradiation require transparent consideration. However, it is clear that there is no need to reinvent studies to show its generic safety and efficacy.

Indeed, organic farmers should reconsider their opposition given the equal risk that an organic product might be involved in the next Salmonella recall. There is no room for complacency either; it is time to use food irradiation for our collective good.

Rick Holley is a professor in the department of food science at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 A14

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Rinelle Harper and family thank man who found her

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Someone or thing is taking advantage of the inactivity at Kapyong Barracks,hundreds of Canada Geese-See Joe Bryksa’s goose a day for 30 days challenge- Day 15- May 22, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press. Local- Deer in Canola field near Elma, Manitoba. 060706.

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Are you concerned about the death of a seal at the Assiniboine Park Zoo?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google