In many countries around the world, including Canada, food is irradiated to provide the same advantages as those benefits that result from the application of heat, refrigeration, freezing or treatment with chemicals. Like irradiation, these processes destroy insects, fungi or bacteria that cause food to spoil or result in food borne illnesses in humans. Irradiation also allows food to be retained in better condition and for longer periods in the distribution channel and in homes.
Radiation and Irradiation
Radiation is broadly defined as energy moving through space in invisible waves. Light, infrared heat and microwaves are all forms of radiant energy. Broiling and toasting use low-level radiant energy to cook food.
The radiation of interest in food preservation is ionizing radiation, also known as irradiation. These shorter wavelengths are capable of damaging microorganisms that contaminate food or cause food spoilage and deterioration. This capability, plus the fact that very large quantities of food are destroyed annually by spoilage and insects, is why scientists have been experimenting since 1950 with irradiation as a method of food preservation. Their research has demonstrated that irradiation is a controlled and very predictable process.
Food irradiation is known as a cold process. It does not significantly increase the temperature or change the physical or sensory characteristics of most foods. Fresh or frozen meat can be irradiated without cooking it.
During irradiation, the energy waves affect unwanted organisms, but are not retained in the food and the food does not become radioactive. Irradiation is radiant energy which disappears when the energy source is removed. This result is similar to food cooked in a microwave oven.
As is the case of heat pasteurization of milk, the irradiation process greatly reduces, but does not eliminate all bacteria. Irradiated meat and poultry, for example, are not sterile. Refrigeration is still required, but the food carries a lower pathogen load and would be safe for a longer period of time than would un-treated meat and poultry.
All known methods of food processing, and even storing food at room temperature for a few hours after harvesting, can lower the content of some nutrients, such as vitamins. At low doses of irradiation, nutrient losses are either not measureable or, if they can be measured, are not significant. At the higher doses used to extend shelf-life or control harmful bacteria, nutritional losses are less than or about the same as those that result from cooking or freezing.
Joint Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization Food Standards Programme
Internationally, a Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/International Atomic Energy Agency/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Irradiation reviewed the safety of food irradiation during the 1980s. The outcome of the international review supported the adoption, in 1983, of a General Standard for Irradiated Foods by the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme, the Codex Alimentarius Commission.
United States Food and Drug Administration
In 1997, the United States Food and Drug Administration concluded that irradiation is safe for refrigerated and frozen meat and meat by-products. Canada’s food safety regulations fell further behind those of the United States when, on November 30, 2012 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded approval for the use of ionizing radiation to treat “unrefrigerated (as well as refrigerated and frozen) uncooked meat, meat by-products, and certain meat food products to reduce levels of foodborne pathogens and extend shelf life”. The decision of the Food and Drug Administration to allow food irradiation is supported by organizations such as the American Dietetic Association and the American Medical Association.
In 2002, Health Canada completed an exhaustive scientific review of an application to approve the irradiation of ground beef. This review encompassed an extensive range of considerations, including dose, efficacy, odour, appearance, shelf-life, composition, nutrition and toxicology. The conclusion of the scientific review was that: “Food irradiation can improve food safety by killing disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella” and no significant adverse consequences for the other factors were identified.
The scientific review noted also that “a major Canadian nutritional institute” indicated “all can benefit from having the choice of irradiated foods, but especially those at greater risk (e.g., people with compromised immune systems, such as transplant recipients and individuals with cancer and HIV/AIDS, and those in hospitals and long term care facilities”.
The conclusion of the 2002 scientific review by Health Canada for ground meat and poultry was not novel. At that time, Canada had already approved the use of irradiation for potatoes, onions, whole or ground spices, dehydrated seasoning preparations, wheat, flour and whole wheat flour. The irradiation could be provided by: gamma-radiation; X-rays; or, electrons.
In Canada, consumer choice is assured by a Consumer Packaging and Labelling Regulations requirement that irradiated foods be identified on the labels of prepackaged products and that signage accompanies bulk displays of irradiated foods. The label or signage must reveal clearly that the food has been irradiated with both a written statement (“irradiated”, “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation”) and the following international symbol:
Similar to the Canadian meat industry, the Consumers’ Association of Canada is a strong proponent of allowing consumers to choose whether or not they wish to purchase food that has the added food safety benefits provided by irradiation. The Consumers’ Association position was reinforced following the publication of a food irradiation survey conducted in February, 2012 by Angus Reid Public Opinion. In that survey, 66% of Canadians supported being accorded the option of exercising their own decisions when purchasing food items.
A Time for Action
In conclusion, irradiation offers a longstanding, well-researched, internationally accepted and proven methodology for further reducing the potential presence of harmful pathogens in meat. Health Canada received scientific validation of this technology in 2002. Regulatory approval of food irradiation for processed meat and poultry would: reduce human illness and suffering; decrease healthcare expenditures; improve confidence in Canada’s food safety system; benefit Canadians economically; and, finally, provide Canadians with the opportunity to exercise individual choice, a choice which American consumers have enjoyed for more than a dozen years, but one which remains unavailable to Canadians.