Irradiated ground beef approved in Canada

All irradiated foods must be labelled. ©iStock/kiboka

Canada will permit the sale of fresh and frozen raw ground beef treated with irradiation.

Health Canada developed the regulations after an assessment and concluded it is a safe and effective treatment to reduce harmful bacteria in ground beef.

“Irradiation is intended to complement rather than replace existing food safety practices, such as appropriate handling, storage and sanitation,” said the agency.

Irradiation is the treatment of food with radiation energy known as ionizing radiation.

For fresh raw ground beef, the minimum and maximum absorbed dose levels of ionizing radiation are 1 kilogray (kGy) and 4.5 kGy, respectively.

For frozen raw ground beef, minimum and maximum absorbed dose levels are 1.5 kGy and 7 kGy.

All irradiated foods must be labelled with a written description that it has been irradiated and the Radura symbol must appear on packages.

If the food is not packaged, a sign containing this information must be displayed at the point of sale.

Approval pick and mix

Health Canada consulted on the proposal from June to September last year and changes to the Food and Drug Regulations have now been made.

An online petition to stop Canada allowing the irradiation of beef products has received almost 19,000 signatures.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) also voiced its opposition to the proposed regulation.  

The US has permitted irradiation of fresh and frozen ground beef since 1999 and more than 60 countries use it on various foods.

Over 20 foreign governments, including South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Brazil permit the irradiation of meat.

Europe does not permit the irradiation of ground beef but some EU member states do allow it on chicken meat and poultry.

The process is approved in Canada to treat potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, spices and seasoning preparations.

It may be used to kill microorganisms that cause human illness or food spoilage; to control insect or parasite infestation; or to slow the ripening or sprouting of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Consultation comments: for vs against

Health Canada received 18 written comments during the consultation. Thirteen of these (72%) expressed support for the move.

Reasons given included scientific evidence supports safety and efficacy, facilities are in place (straightforward implementation) and it provides an additional choice for consumers, and labelling will allow informed choice and potentially increase public confidence in the food supply.

Of the five stakeholders who expressed opposition, three were consumers, one was industry and one was an industry association.

Concerns were raised regarding potential impacts on industry, including larger beef packing companies gaining a competitive advantage over small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) because of financial ability to purchase irradiation equipment.

“Beef slaughterhouses and processing plants, including those using high-line speeds, are subjected to a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP)–like system and they must be able to show trained and qualified inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that their HACCP system is effective. They are also responsible for the proper handling of beef products according to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs),” said Health Canada.

“These obligations would continue to apply to processors and beef slaughterhouses that choose to use irradiation to treat ground beef and would therefore not change as a result of this regulatory amendment.”

Other concerns included ground beef may pose a risk due to production of hydrogen peroxide and cyclobutanones, as well as with radioactive waste as a result of the irradiation process.

Health Canada said when irradiated, the water found in meat can form hydrogen peroxide.

However, hydrogen peroxide is relatively unstable (i.e. decomposes easily) and any residues after irradiation are expected to break down to water and oxygen during post-irradiation storage, it added.

Alkylcyclobutanones are products referred to as “Unique Radiolytic Products” (URPs) that are derived from fat when irradiated and presence is directly related to the fat content.

Health Canada said the weight of evidence indicates that the very low levels of these compounds in irradiated beef do not pose a risk to human health.

Meanwhile, an outbreak of gastrointestinal illnesses linked to oysters from British Columbia has affected 221 people.

British Columbia (159), Alberta (36), and Ontario (26) reported cases between December 2016 and February 2017.

Testing of several cases has confirmed the presence of norovirus infection but the cause of the contamination is still under investigation.

Illnesses can be avoided if oysters are cooked to an internal temperature of 90° Celsius/194° Fahrenheit for a minimum of 90 seconds.

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