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Irradiated beef could be in stores soon—but what exactly is it?

Heather MacMullin | posted Friday, Jun 3rd, 2016

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This week, Health Canada proposed a change to Food and Drug Regulations that will allow for the sale of irradiated beef in Canada. If the amendment goes through, it will allow beef producers to treat all fresh and frozen ground beef with ionizing radiation, and make it available for purchase as early as the end of the summer. While that sounds scary, there are benefits to the process.

What is irradiation?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency cites it as “the process of exposing food to a controlled amount of energy called ‘ionizing radiation.’” The three types of radiation approved for use are: Gamma rays, X-rays and electron beam radiation. The rays penetrate the food on a seek and destroy mission, targeting microorganisms that can cause spoilage, food poisoning or a significant reduction in an item’s shelf life.

Does it pose any health risks?

No. And it doesn’t make the food radioactive — the food never comes into contact with the radioactive source, and no radioactive waves remain in the food after treatment. According to Health Canada, 1 to 3 kilograys (kGy) of energy are all that’s required to kill bacteria, while slightly more is required to kill parasites and insects. And, according to a study on high-dose food irradiation (above 10 kGy) for the FAO, WHO and IAEA, the process is toxicologically safe.

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Radura symbol

Will it be labelled?

Yes. All irradiated food must either carry the statement “treated with radiation”, “treated by irradiation”, or “irradiated” in addition to displaying the Radura, the international symbol identifying irritated foods, on the main display label.

Are other foods irradiated in Canada?

Yes. Currently, potatoes and onions are approved for irradiation to inhibit sprouting, while wheat, flour and whole-wheat flour go through the process to control insect infestation during storage, and whole/ground spices and seasonings receive it to reduce the presence of bacteria and fungi.

Does it affect the taste of the food?

Health Canada asserts “most consumers cannot detect any difference in the appearance, odour or taste of the food,” so the odds are against it.

Whether or not you’re buying Radura-marked packages, it’s important to note that safe food-handling and storage still applies; the irradiation process does not actually sterilize food.

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