Health Canada Renews Proposal to Allow Irradiation of Ground Beef

The international symbol for irradiated food.

Update: Health Canada formally announced its proposal to approve irradiation of fresh and frozen ground beef on June 17th. A 75-day consultation period with Canadians will end on September 1, 2016. The proposed regulatory changes are published in the Canada Gazette, Part I, for June 18, 2016.

18 years after formally asking the Canadian government for approval, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association is hopeful Health Canada will soon allow the sale of irradiated ground beef.

The federal department has recently posted proposed amendments to its Food and Drug Regulations that would allow the beef industry to use irradiation on fresh and frozen raw ground beef.

“This would be a key step in a process that began for our association back in 1998, and has long been finished in the United States, so we’re hoping this is the beginning of the end,” says Mark Klassen, the CCA’s director of technical services, in the conversation below.

Irradiation kills food-borne pathogens such as E.coli and Salmonella using a very low dose of ionizing radiation, not only improving food safety, but extending shelf-life.

“Of all the technologies that are used to process food, irradiation is the most extensively studied and has been over 100 years,” explained University of Manitoba food safety expert Rick Holley in this Beef Research School episode, citing two World Health Organization studies that found no significant nutritional or toxicological concerns with irradiation at low levels.

Irradiated beef has been sold in the U.S. since 2000. Health Canada considered allowing it in 2002, but backed off due to public concerns and misconceptions about how irradiation affects food. It is already approved in Canada for spices, onions, potatoes, wheat, as well as white and whole wheat flour. Irradiated meat would need to be clearly labelled as such.

“I think over time Canadians have become increasingly understanding of our intent with this. It’s certainly not a mandatory process,” notes Klassen.

Related: CCA Plans to Reactivate Irradiation Petition with Health Canada

For beef producers, irradiation would help reduce market uncertainty that comes with food safety scares and recalls, such as the XL Foods shutdown in 2012, he says.

“It’s not the only tool and it isn’t a substitute for everything we’re doing right now, but when you combine the controls that are in place with irradiation and the potential that it offers, we could essentially eliminate E.coli O157-related illness in ground beef,” says Klassen.

“If there was widespread use of irradiation with ground beef, I don’t anticipate we would see a recall again in that circumstance,” he says, when asked whether the XL situation could have been prevented with irradiation.

If approved, he foresees demand being relatively small to start, with processors shipping products to approved irradiation facilities to be treated.

Public consultations on the proposed amendments are slated to begin in June. Given the long history of the irradiated beef file, Klassen is understandably hesitant to predict by when government approval could be in place, but he says the necessary regulatory changes could be implemented in 12 months “in the most optimistic scenario.”

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