The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) is planning to submit a plan to the Canadian government to irradiate beef in the wake of last year’s huge XL Beef recall and E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. The group submitted the request back in 1998, but the plan was not completed. The CCA announced the news on Earth Day, April 22, 2013 after the Consumers Association of Canada stated that the benefits of irradiation are beginning to be accepted and recognized.
Irradiation has been studied at the University of Minnesota Food Policy Research Center. The CDC and WHO recognize the potential of food irradiation to prevent infectious diseases that are transmitted by meat, poultry, and fresh product. The process has been approved by the FDA to kill harmful and spoilage bacteria and pests on fruits, vegetables, spices, raw poultry and red meats, and wheat flour but hasn’t seen much commercial use.
Irradiation is underutilized because of consumer unease with the process and limited processing capacity. What most consumers do not know is that a product must be labeled as irradiated only if the whole product has gone through the process. Those products bear the Radura symbol to the right of this story. The FDA allows irradiation of meat, spices, and other ingredients if it is used in another retail product, such as frozen lasagna. Labeling is not required in that cases. Labeling is also not required for food sold in restaurants.
We asked Dr. Ted Labuza, Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota about this issue. He explained that irradiation can be applied with three different methods. Gamma ray has the most power in the shortest time to deliver a dose needed to reduce the pathogen population by 5 log cycles. That reduces the risk too 1 pathogen cell in 100,000 in every ounce, which is the typical standard for pasteurization process. Another method is e-beam, which are high speed electrons that attack the DNA, like an X ray machine. The third method is high power X-rays, a process that is still in development, that has the safety of an on/off mechanism.
Dr. Labuza did state that with gamma rays, terrorism is a concern. A group could blow up a gamma facility, spreading the radioactive pellets into the atmosphere, similar to Fukushima. No terrorist attacks are possible except for simply destroying the machine with e-beam and high power X-rays since they have a simple on-off switch.
When we asked about some concerns that consumer groups have with irradiation, he had interesting answers. Some groups say that irradiation reduces the available nutrients in a food. Dr. Labuza said, “All processing like drying, canning, and pasteurization deplete some vitamins by 15 to 35%. Vitamins C and A are the most susceptible, so there is no effect on minerals.”
We also asked about the difficulty of changing consumer perception on this issue. Dr. Labuza said, He said “it is very difficult to get consumers to change their minds. The new preventative plans for fresh produce under FSMA might make a difference in the outbreak rate, which would reduce the need for irradiation.” We asked about the thought that irradiation may let producers be sloppier in their standards because they can count on irradiation to mask problems they create. He said, “The FDA would not let the plants run sloppier methods.”
Finally, we asked about the issue of nuclear waste. He said “e-beam and high power X-rays , two of the methods, are an on/off machines and have no waste. Cobalt 60 and cesium are by-products of uranium degradation but I would not consider that as waste.”