By: Alice Vo Edwards

On February 22nd, the Canadian government announced that it would be allowing manufacturers to sell beef that had been irradiated. This is an addition to other foods that have been irradiated for some time. While in-line with other countries use of irradiation, this might still pose concern for some consumers. We at UnsafeFoods have received inquiries about what this means and why this practice is being undertaken in Canada. The overwhelming fear among those concerned is that it may make you radioactive, or it come to the United States. Guess what? The United States has already been using this method of foodborne illness prevention for quite some time now.

To demystify beef irradiation, we have made a listing of frequently asked questions about beef irradiation, how it is done, and what it means for the future of food safety.

What is beef irradiation?

Irradiation is a process where the food is treated with low-level radiation called “ionizing radiation.” In beef irradiation is said to reduce numbers of harmful and dangerous bacteria, like E. coli and Salmonella. The United States has been allowing this since 1999 and over 60 other countries also allow irradiated foods, according to the Canadian government’s website, www.Canada.ca.

Why is irradiation used?

Irradiation is not new to Canada or other countries. Canada’s health website, Health Canada, says that they had previously approved irradiation on many common food staples including potatoes, wheat, onion, and dried seasoning and spices. In addition to killing bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella, it also helps kill molds and yeasts and keeps food fresher, longer. For more information about the different foods and what irradiation is used for on each food type, read the article in the Canada Gazette which has a great table listing all of these “Regulations Amending the Food and Drug Regulations (Food Irradiation)” published on February 22nd, 2017.

Will I become radioactive if I eat beef or other foods that have gone through irradiation?

You will not become radioactive from eating irradiated foods. Health Canada’s website FAQs about irradiation reassures Canadians that, “in the process, the food does not come into contact with the radioactive source and therefore cannot become contaminated” and that no radioactive waves remain in the food after it has been irradiated that could make you radioactive if you eat them. In fact, the World Health Organization supports irradiating food to provide better health for people everywhere and has published several papers on the subject in support of its safety.

Do I still need to worry about hand washing and other food safety concerns if the meat I buy is irradiated beef?

If you buy irradiated beef, you still need to follow normal food handling precautions including hand washing, separating raw meat from uncooked foods like fruits and vegetables, not leaving the meat out at room temperature, and cooking meat to the proper temperature. The temperature requirement to cook is the same for irradiated beef vs. non-irradiated beef. While it can reduce bacteria, it does not kill all bacteria.

How can I tell if food I buy has been irradiated?

Food that has been irradiated and is sold in Canada should display the Radura symbol on the package. The Radura symbol is shown below.

The Radura Symbol.

This symbol is used in other countries, for example, the US also, to recognize irradiated foods. Packaging may also say “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation.”

What are the drawbacks of irradiated beef?

While governments and the World Health Organization support irradiated beef to help reduce foodborne illness and prevent food spoilage, some groups have concerns.

Taste and Smell

Some consumers report that irradiated beef tastes different and smells different, according to Meat Science. The Center for Consumer research says meat generally is the least affected by taste and smell differences compared to other foods, however.

Potential Health Concerns

While the FDA in the US and Canada’s government does not seem concerned by the use of irradiated food, many health conscious individuals may want to steer clear. While for now, governments report that the health risks are minimal, several studies have been published with research that points to an alternative viewpoint on the lack of side-effects for irradiated food.

Increased risk of cancer determined in study performed on rats with irradiated foods

This is especially important when trying to decide whether or not to eat irradiated beef, because one of the studies specifically looked at how the process of irradiation affects fats, which is more prevalent, of course, in beef, versus products that have been approved for irradiation prior in Canada, such as potatoes, wheat, and spices. The Nutrition and Cancer journal published a study that found that the process of irradiation created 2-alkylcyclobutanones, which are called 2-ACBs for short. 2-ACBs are “radiolytic derivatives of triglycerides found exclusively in irradiated food” according to the authors of the study, “Food-borne radiolytic compounds (2-alkylcyclobutanones) may promote experimental colon carcinogenesis” which was performed in France in 2002. Another French study also found that the 2-ACBs when eaten, do not fully flush out of the body and could be found in the tissues of the laboratory rats studied.

Irradiated beef a contributing factor for colon cancer?

A German study published in 2006 found an alarming correlation between 2-ACBs and DNA damage in the colon that the study authors felt provided evidence of irradiated fat (i.e. irradiated beef) being possible risk factor for initiating colon cancer and the growth of colon cancer.

Decide for yourself

These studies raise enough health concerns for me not to want to feed myself or my family irradiated foods. If the World Health Organization and other governments want to support irradiated beef and other irradiated foods, and manufacturers want to save money and use irradiation, health conscious consumers need to be more vigilant than ever to read labels and be careful about eating out and eating places where food labels or ingredient lists are not provided.

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