Health Canada announced its seeking regulatory changes that would allow for the sale of irradiated ground beef on grocery store shelves across the country.
The department said Monday the proposed changes would allow the beef industry to use irradiation to “improve the safety of their products.”
But what exactly is irradiated beef?
Irradiation involves putting meat through a machine that blasts it with low level radiation similar to an X-ray machine, said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.
“With the irradiated process you basically get rid of most pathogens, like E. Coli and Salmonella, making the food much safer to eat and actually extends the shelf life of meat,” said Charlebois.
Health Canada had proposed in 2002 to allow the sale of irradiated ground beef, but according to a statement on its website, it never materialized “due to mostly negative stakeholder reaction.”
Industry groups, like the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, have said there’s been a change in public perception since it first launched an application to use irradiation for ground beef in 1998.
Following an E. coli outbreak in 2012 linked to tainted beef at former XL Foods plant in southern Alberta that sickened 18 people across Canada, the issue of irradiation in beef was again brought up by the association.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has approved several foods for irradiation including; Beef and Pork, shellfish, fruits and vegetables, and spices and seasonings.
So what’s the beef with irradiated beef?
Critics of irradiated food say it produces toxic compounds, like benzene or toluene, and reduces the nutritional value of food while also changing the taste of meat.
Monique Lacroix, a researcher at the Canadian Irradiation Centre and at INRS-Institute Armand Frappier in Laval, Que., told the Canadian Press that benzene is a volatile compound normally present in stored meat, and suggests low levels of irradiation doesn’t increase benzene or free radicals to a concerning amount.
“When you use the barbecue, you produce billions of free radicals. You also produce toxic compounds because you burn the fatty acids,” she said.
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Opponents also say there hasn’t been any research on long-term effects on humans who eat irradiated foods or on workers who oversee the treatment process.
Health Canada has not said what the labeling for irradiated meat might look like, such as a symbol which is required in the U.S., but that it would be “clearly labelled.”
“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 department said.
Charlebois said the past negative public perception around irradiated foods has led to Canada “falling at least a decade behind” regarding the latest technology.
“Retailers and cattle producers were concerned that perhaps Canadians would see their commodity as more risky and they were concerned that people would walk away from the product,” he said. “Bu the last thing you want to do is expose consumers to unnecessary risk so if the technology is there why not use it?”
*With a file from the Canadian Press