FAQs: The foods irradiated in Canada and the safety issues

Which foods may be irradiated in Canada and how safe is irradiated food?

Public consultation coming on irradiating ground beef

Fresh and frozen raw ground beef could be added to the list of foods Health Canada allows to undergo food irradiation. (CBC)

On Monday, Health Canada announced it will soon propose regulations to permit adding ground beef to the short list of foods that may be irradiated and sold in Canada. 

When Health Canada proposed doing this in 2002, it abandoned the plans, "due to mostly negative stakeholder reaction."

Before any changes to the food and drug regulations, public consultations will take place. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about food irradiation.

What foods may be irradiated under current Canadian regulations?

Canadian regulations do not permit irradiated food to be sold in Canada, with four exceptions:

  • Potatoes may be irradiated to inhibit sprouting during storage.
  • Onions also may be irradiated to inhibit sprouting during storage.
  • Wheat and wheat flour may be irradiated to control insect infestation in stored food.
  • Spices and dehydrated seasonings may be irradiated to reduce microbial load.

Government regulations also stipulate the type (only gamma radiation from Cobalt-60 for potatoes, onions and wheat and wheat flour) and maximum amount of radiation.

Spices are irradiated in Canada, the U.S. and other countries, especially because of possible salmonella contamination. The U.S. irradiates 80,000 kilograms of spices annually. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Do other countries permit food irradiation?

Over 50 countries with irradiation regulations permit the practice, including the United States, Australia and some European Union members.

But it's China that leads the world in the amount of food irradiated, according to the latest statistics from the Food Irradiation Update, which estimates that China irradiates a million tonnes of food, 40 per cent of it chicken feet. 

Pet food comes next, along with dehydrated vegetables, spices, herbs and seasonings, and seafood.

Mexico, an important source of food for Canada, is steadily increasing the quantity of food it irradiates, although most of it goes to the U.S. Guavas top the list, which includes other produce. Food Irradiation Update says several large U.S. grocery chains carry irradiated Mexican produce.

What is the U.S. doing?

The U.S. is a major market for irradiated food, but far behind China. Americans consumed about 23,000 tonnes of irradiated food in 2014, with meat making up about 7,000 tonnes. Major retailers sell irradiated ground beef.

Hawaii accounts for more than one-quarter of the food irradiated in the U.S.

"The U.S. has the most advanced commercial food irradiation program in the world," Food Irradiation Update says.

In 2014 the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of irradiation for shrimp, lobsters and crabs.

The U.S. permits the sale of irradiated ground beef. Health Canada may soon do so as well. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

What is food irradiation?

Food irradiation involves bombarding meat with ionizing radiation, such as the gamma rays or X-rays routinely used to sterilize medical and dental products, according to the U.S. FDA

How does it work?

When food is irradiated, it is never touched by the radioactive source itself. The food is briefly exposed to alpha or gamma rays that may kill E. coli, salmonella and other microbes, as well as some parasites and moulds.

Irradiation is also used to increase the shelf life of produce by slowing down the sprouting and ripening processes.

How safe is it?

Public health authorities like the World Health Organization, the FDA and Health Canada have all cleared food irradiation for safety. Some consumer groups, like the Consumers Association of Canada, support food irradiation, while others are opposed.

The debate has been raging for decades.

Food Irradiation Update says, "Decades of peer-reviewed research worldwide has shown that irradiation of food is a safe and effective way to kill bacteria in foods, extend its shelf life and reduce insect infestation."

But the Center for Food Safety says, "Radiation can do strange things to food" and "serious questions remain as to whether irradiated foods are safe to eat." The center says irradiation can destroy the vitamins and "ruin, the flavour, odour, appearance and texture of food."

Experts do seem to agree that irradiating food is no substitute for proper storage, preparation and cooking.

How will I know if the food is irradiated?

Since irradiation doesn't kill 100 per cent of micro-organisms, the standard food preparation steps of clean, separate, cook and chill, still apply.

Health Canada says irradiated ground beef would need to be clearly labelled as such.

Pre-packaged foods with at least 10 per cent of the ingredients irradiated must display a symbol and statement to that effect.

Stores selling irradiated, non-packaged food are required to have a sign saying the item has been irradiated.

In the U.S., the FDA requires irradiated foods to bear the international symbol for irradiation.

Look for the Radura symbol along with the statement "Treated with radiation" or "Treated by irradiation" on the food label. Individual ingredients such as spices do not need to be labelled.