Irradiated ground beef plan decades in making

The current list:

Ruth Brinston has a simple desire. She wants to be able to buy irradiated beef at her local grocery store in Ottawa.

The semi-retired scientist and consultant has been studying and promoting irradiation for 30 years and has no qualms about its ability to improve food safety by killing E. coli and other dangerous bacteria.

Brinston may realize that desire now that Health Canada has proposed adding ground beef to the list of foods that can be irradiated.

“The proposed amendments would allow, but not require, the beef industry to use irradiation as a tool to improve the safety of their products,” says a page on Health Canada’s website.

“Like all other irradiated foods, irradiated ground beef would need to be clearly labelled as such in accordance with the existing labelling requirements set out in regulations.”

The proposal was posted to Canada Gazette June 17, which now begins a 75 day public comment period.

Brinston is happy about the prospect.

“It’s an excellent move because it allows consumers a choice, one that Americans have enjoyed for over a decade,” she said.

Brinston knows irradiation. She worked for Atomic Energy of Canada in the early days of her career, later forming her own company. She managed the International Irradiation Association for seven years.

“I actually became involved in food irradiation 30 years ago, so a lot of history and a lot of hope. Canada was a leader back then and we’re still a leader today in the technology, the equipment and in terms of developing research,” she said.

“We’ve got an outstanding facility in Montreal and we export a lot of graduate students with expertise in food irradiation, but they can’t get jobs here.”

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has long supported the option of irradiation. It made a major push for use of the technology in 1998, and Health Canada put it forward for approval in 2002.

It didn’t proceed in the face of opposition that fanned consumer worries over radiation and reduced nutrition in the treated food.

“For whatever reason, those that opposed it were very effective,” Brinston said. “The industry somehow missed the boat.”

She acknowledged that irradiation does affect the meat.

“I think the benefit of killing the E. coli and the small amount of change in nutrients is well worth it,” she said.

“If I leave orange juice in my fridge for one day, two days, there will be a change in nutrition.”

The CCA updated its application for acceptance of meat irradiation in 2013, a response at least in part to the massive meat recall at Alberta’s XL Foods in 2012.

Ron Davidson, director of international trade, government and media relations for the Canadian Meat Council, said the public seems to have a better understanding now of irradiation and its benefits.

He said the Consumers Association of Canada once opposed the practice but has changed its position.

“They have done consumer surveys that support that,” said Davidson.

“They are now very much supportive of having it as an option, with labelling, so consumers have the choice.”

He said irradiation of ground beef, should it be approved, will add to the cost. It is an extra step in the production chain and will require additional labelling.

Brinston said more transportation costs might be incurred in shipping beef to irradiation facilities, unless major processors install that capability at plants.

However, she said there are varying levels of cost for such things as organic beef and other labelled products, so irradiated ground beef can take its own place in the meat case.

“There is a niche market for it. It’s not a huge business opportunity,” she said.

“What I’ve noticed is, between 20 years ago and today, the beef industry has done a tremendous job in producing a safer product.”

Irradiated foods in Canada

The current list:

  • potatoes
  • onions
  • wheat and wheat flour
  • spices and dehydrated seasonings

Source: Health Canada

Why irradiate food?

  • prevent food-borne illness
  • extend shelf life
  • destroy insects
  • delay sprouting and ripening
  • sterilization

Source: U.S. FDA

About food irradiation

  • studied since the 1950s
  • a cold process that does not cook food
  • high-energy gamma rays bombard food but are not retained
  • does not make food radioactive
  • reduces but does not eliminate bacteria
  • causes minimal nutrient loss
  • approved for use on food in 38 countries

Source: Canadian Meat Council, Canadian Spice Association

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