Industry News Does the XL Foods E.coli Scare Make the Case for Irradiation? by Jeff Gaye
The XL Foods beef recall, and the fallout that has since spread across the political and economic arenas, has renewed the discussion about irradiating beef to destroy certain bacteria. The discovery of E.coli contaminated meat from the XL Foods Lakeside plant in Brooks, Alberta made almost daily headlines through September and October. Recall notices were issued for hundreds of beef products. Accusations flew in every direction as people looked to blame the company, its employees, the government, the federal meat inspectors, and the entire beef industry for the contamination. Beef from the plant has been linked to 16 cases of illness in four provinces. Beef disappeared from store shelves as one product after another was recalled, leaving retailers scrambling. The plant’s owners turned over management to Brazil-based JBS USA, who holds an option to buy it and several other assets currently owned by Nilsson Bros of Edmonton. Up to 600 tonnes of beef were taken to the dump, and the Canadian beef industry’s public image suffered a black eye. Some say much of this damage could have been prevented if the beef had been irradiated against the bacteria. Rick Holley, for one, believes that wider use of irradiation as a means to food safety is long overdue. Holley is Distinguished Professor of Food Microbiology and Food Safety at the University of Manitoba’s Department of Food Science. He has strong opinions on the matter of food safety, and he feels that there is a role for low-level irradiation in the meat industry. Canada was a leader in food irradiation research in the 1960s and a pioneer in the use of the Cobalt-60 isotope. Cobalt-60 is widely used for radiography and radiotherapy, for sterilizing medical instruments, and for decontaminating food. NOVEMBER 2012
According to Holley, food poisoning in Canada could be reduced by 25% just by irradiating poultry. While the technology has been proven to be safe and effective, Holley says, it has never gained ground in Canada, mostly due to resistance among the public. Much of the concern stems from a general fear of all things nuclear. Other opposition comes from groups like organic producers, and from consumers who may feel that smaller is better when it comes to food production and are not inclined to embrace large-scale processing. Holley says that phobias about nuclear technology are “absolutely” the biggest barrier to adopting food irradiation. But the idea of the local butcher being a safer source of meat than the large supermarket, he says, is irrelevant as far as safety is concerned. “When we take a look at the risks of different types of contamination, these risks don’t differ. That idea doesn’t have any scientific basis for animal or plant products. We’ve got some issues with the way we use organic matter as fertilizer that leads to contamination of these products,” he said. The challenge is how best to mitigate the risks. Food irradiation uses low-level gamma rays, X-rays, or electron beam radiation to kill E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, and some food-borne parasites. Although it is approved for use on onions, potatoes, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, and whole or ground spices, it is not widely used in Canada. Health Canada has researched the benefits of irradiating fresh and frozen ground beef and has recommended its use. The beef industry has petitioned to have these products approved, and a request has been made to test all red meat for its suitability for irradiation. National check-off funds, provided by Canada’s beef producers, support ongoing research through the Beef Cattle Research Council.
Health Canada testing shows irradiating beef to be effective against E.coli O157, Salmonella, Listeria, and other pathogens to a greater or lesser degree. Poultry, shrimp, and mangoes have also been proposed as possibly benefiting from irradiation. In the case of poultry, Holley says that eight major pathogens have been identified which could be controlled through irradiation. The Consumers’ Association of Canada, which once opposed irradiation, now says that a majority of Canadian consumers want the choice available to them. The CAC commissioned an Angus Reid survey this spring that showed 57% of Canadians were unaware of the process, but that two-thirds approved of it once they learned more about it. Health Canada has determined there is a small loss of the vitamins thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin in irradiated beef. Vitamins B6 and B12, for which beef is a more important source, are unaffected. Tests show no detectable changes to the colour, smell, or taste of the meat. Some critics worry that irradiation will cause processors to relax their food handling protocols in the belief that the rays will take care of everything. “When pasteurization was first made mandatory the same concerns were raised. And concerns have to be raised, business can’t have carte blanche,” Holley says. But, he says, safe food handling is a necessity whether food is irradiated or not. Perishable products still need to be refrigerated, and regulatory and inspection protocols have to be respected. “Bad food is bad food,” he says, “and irradiation isn’t going to make bad food good.” Holley sees some of the suspicion surrounding the food industry as well-founded, and he feels strongly continued on page 8
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