Irradiation is back on the table

Europe’s deadly E.

In a building somewhere, thousands of potatoes trundle down a conveyor belt and into a room contained by six-foot-thick concrete walls. It's not the walls that impress, though. It's the floor. Or more precisely, what's underneath–a pool of water with a beguiling blue hue filled with rods of Cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope.

As the potatoes enter the room, the floor opens and the rods soar above the water, giving the spuds a brief zap of gamma rays. A few minutes later, they exit the room and begin the next stage of their journey, to the grocery store perhaps. That at zap is called "irradiation" and it kills E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens.

Irradiation has been controversial since it was first introduced to Canada, in 1960. Supporters say it makes food safer. Opponents argue the risks are unknown. Most consumers view it as "radiation-light" and tend to be against it, too. Only a handful of foods are allowed to be irradiated: potatoes, onions, wheat and some spices and seasonings. Meat and almost all fruit and vegetables are not. In 2002, Health Canada proposed adding more items to the list, such as mangoes, but amid strong public pressure the plan was squashed.

But this summer's E. coli outbreak in Europe, which spread from Germany across the continent, killing more than 42 and sickening an estimated 4,000, has some wondering whether irradiation isn't worth exploring further. What is surprising is that in one instance, the group asking the government to open up debate has historically been dead-set against it.

In June, the Consumer Association of Canada (CAC), which for a quarter-century has fought irradiation, made the case to re-examine it in a meeting with Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). With an increasing number of high-pro le food scares of late, CAC's president, Bruce Cran, believes irradiation warrants at least a further look. "We're not saying let's irradiate everything. We're saying we should be looking at this. If it comes to the point of making a choice, it at least should be an informed one."

Mansell Griffiths ths, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety at the University of Guelph, says there is ample research that irradiation is safe. Canadians, he notes, eat irradiated food such as spices fairly regularly. "To a certain extent it's safer than cooking foods because of issues with some chemicals that are produced when you cook meat."

Griffiths ths stresses, however, that irradiation should not be viewed as a silver bullet. It's just one part of the food safety process that includes not only agricultural best practices but also consumer awareness. "With ground meat, for example, you don't need irradiation if consumers cook it properly."

Irradiation's detractors counter that it not only removes essential nutrients but, more worrying, alters the food's molecular structure. Plus, there may be further unknown risks. "We don't know the effect of feeding large populations larger amounts of irradiated food starting from a younger age," says Karen Graham, a Manitoba-based dietitian who wrote a 1992 book called Food Irradiation: Canada's Folly.

Graham says irradiation does not live up to what she calls the "gold standard" for food-additive testing, the 100-fold safety factor. In basic terms, it requires testing in animals to determine the point at which they show adverse effects from consuming treated foods, and then dividing that amount by 100 in order to determine a suitable threshold for human consumption. "This is is impossible to do with food irradiation, because if you irradiate a food 100 times higher than the dose you're going to be using, you'd destroy the food you can't take a dose that's 100 times smaller because then you would end up with a dose that is not going to kill the E. coli."

Nonsense, says Suresh D. Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M University, a facility that uses X-rays and e-beam technology rather than Cobalt-60, and has the capacity to irradiate up to 15,000 pounds of food per hour. Pillai believes irradiation definitely deserves further consideration. He recently authored a study entitled "Food Safety & Food Irradiation: Global Necessities for the 21st Century" in which he estimated that 13.6 million of the eight billion pounds of ground beef produced in the U.S. each year carries a known pathogen.

According to Pillai, only a "miniscule" amount of the ground beef produced in the U.S. receives irradiation treatment (he pegs the amount at about 18 million pounds), yet there are no documented cases of sickness arising from its use. "It is totally unacceptable that consumers are willing to purchase foods that are potentially contaminated, and it's totally unacceptable that governments are willing to stand by and allow people to get sick and die, like in Europe."

Perhaps a good litmus test for irradiation is the 2008 listeriosis crisis that killed 23 and was traced to tainted lunch meat produced at a Maple Leaf Foods' processing plant. Would irradiation have prevented that disaster? Griffiths, the Guelph professor, says more than likely. "If that meat had been irradiated, there would have been a strong possibility that outbreak would not have occurred," he says. However, Health Canada spokesperson Olivia Caron says the causes of any single food-borne illness are complex and it is impossible to know what effects irradiation would have had in the Maple Leaf case.

Overall, irradiation is worth another look. Both the World Health Organization and the United States Food and Drug Administration endorse it. A bigger question, should Canada start to irradiate more foods, is will consumers buy in? That's the "wild card," says Derek Nighbor, senior vice-president of public and regulatory affairs at Food & Consumer Products of Canada, which represents the industry's manufacturers and endorses irradiation. What's needed is a smart education campaign to show consumers irradiation's benefits–safer produce and meats, and less waste because food won't go bad as quickly.

Then, Nighbor surmises, the Radura, the symbol displayed on the packaging of irradiated food, could be seen as a positive image that consumers equate with microbiological safety. That would give irradiation a new lease on life. If not a half life.

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