Group urges Ottawa to reopen debate on irradiation
The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, June 8, 2011 7:57AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 5:00AM EDT
TORONTO - The Canadian government should reopen the discussion about irradiating food in light of the world's deadliest E. coli outbreak that has claimed 24 lives in Europe, a consumer group said Tuesday.
The issue of zapping more of Canada's food supply to kill dangerous bugs like E. coli will be raised as an "emergency issue" at a round table between consumer groups and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency at its two-day meeting that begins Wednesday in Ottawa.
Scientists are still working to determine the source of the outbreak that began last month in Germany, but there are suggestions the cause may never be known with the produce likely gone from store shelves. More than 2,400 people have become ill, including one man from Ontario.
Spanish cucumbers that were initially blamed have been ruled out and initial tests on German sprouts came back negative but testing continues. The Ontario man who became ill ate local salad produce in Germany, health officials said.
The CFIA said in a release Tuesday that while the E. coli outbreak in Germany is understandably concerning for Canadians, "Canada's food safety system is robust and responsive."
There is no indication that any contaminated products have been shipped to Canada and the amount of fresh produce imported from European countries is extremely low, the agency said.
But more Canadian cases linked to Europe could surface and the time to reopen the food irradiation issue is now, said Bruce Cran, the president of the Consumers Association of Canada.
"Looking at solutions to whatever we're encountering with this business in Germany, and some other issues as well, I think we should be having that discussion with the government of Canada at the moment," Cran said in an interview. "It's something that needs to be brought out into the open and that's what we'll be looking for."
Irradiation, which is used with varying degree in 40 countries, briefly exposes food to gamma rays or electron beams and kills E. coli and salmonella in food.
Cran, who said his group previously opposed food irradiation, asked for the issue be added to the agenda for the Ottawa meeting, which will deal with CFIA-related issues.
"Possibly with the E. coli and the listeriosis problem, irradiation may be something Canadians are prepared to look at, in hamburger," he said. " I think we're in need, in urgent need, of discussion on these issues."
Beef and poultry can be irradiated in the U.S. and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the procedure for raw spinach and lettuce three years ago, saying it safely killed germs.
Meat and salad foods are not on the approved list for irradiated foods in Canada. Onions, potatoes, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, and whole or ground spices and dehydrated seasonings are the only approved items, according to the CFIA website.
But some experts say increasing the number of foods that can be irradiated would be a hard sell to Canadian consumers.
"Irradiation still has that connotation of Cold War," said University of Guelph food microbiologist Dr. Keith Warriner. "Especially after Japan, obviously with the reactor that gives you negative things. The worry is in certain consumers's minds there is a risk there."
Tim Sly of Ryerson University's School of Occupational and Public Health agrees there's a fear factor at play but said it's not based on science.
"The whole sense that you may glow in the dark of course is completely rubbish," said Sly.
"It's one of the tools we can use and perhaps should have been using far more," he added.
Illnesses caused in recent years by contaminated foods -- such as hamburger meat, tomatoes, lettuce, soft fruits and fish -- may have been lessened if irradiation had been used, Sly said.
In 2002, Health Canada proposed adding other items to its food irradiation list, such as mangoes, yet no changes were made due to a lack of demand and strong public resistance.
"I think the reason why the list never got increased was because processors said 'Look there's no point in going on the list because there's no way we're going to sell anything that's been irradiated or you put a radiation label on," said Warriner.
The process involves a light exposure to radiation and no radioactive material gets in the food, Sly explained. However the process does reduce some nutrients slightly, he said.
"A few of the vitamins are reduced a little bit," said Sly. "Depending on the level of radiation that's used, you can zap food so much that it liquifies food."
It wouldn't work well for bean sprouts, he said.
"You're eating bean sprouts because you're eating a living, growing plant whereas the radiation will actually stop it sprouting."
Another barrier is price, said Warriner. Irradiating food adds about 10 cents per pound to the cost of food at the grocery store in the U.S.
"While it doesn't sound a lot, consumers go with price," he said.