Canada approves food irradiation for meat, but will consumers buy in?

Health Canada has approved irradiation of ground beef, but it may be some time before meat treated with irradiation appears on store shelves.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association requested approval for irradiation of ground beef in May 2013. After a series of assessments, the department determined it is safe and does not significantly alter the nutritional quality.

No companies have indicated they are going to install the units needed to send an electron beam through meat to destroy food borne pathogens such as E. coli H5: 0157 and salmonella. The process does not involve radioactivity.

“To my knowledge, we don’t have anyone who has actually decided to do it,” said Ron Davidson of the Canadian Meat Council, which represents federally inspected processors.

It is costly to install, and processors want assurances of market demand in Canada and among trading partners before making a $1 million investment.

In addition, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has regulatory concerns.

A company that decided to have this process done on a contract basis off site would need CFIA recognition of the facility because it is an intervention of the meat.

“The regulatory framework does not exist at this point to register third party suppliers,” Davidson said.

Canada already allows irradiation to treat potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour and spices.

It has been available in the United States since 1997, but sales of irradiated ground beef have been low because it retails for about 10 cents more a pound.

“It is called grey beef because it is a bit off colour and it has not sold very well,” said food safety specialist Keith Warriner of the University of Guelph.

“There is no indication from the U.S. that it has been a big success,” he said.

Irradiation does not make the food sterile. The shelf life is extended, but meat should still be handled and cooked properly.

“It just gives another set of tools to the beef processors to remove things like E. coli,” he said.

The process has been understood for more than a century, and the U.S. approved it for wheat, potatoes, spices, fruits, vegetables, ground beef, pork, and poultry.

It is accepted in a number of countries. The European Union does not allow it, although some individual members permit it for poultry and a few limited products.

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