Iotron Industries | CCA restarts 15-year-old effort to get Health Canada approval
Food irradiation is gaining momentum in the wake of last year’s XL Foods Inc. beef recall.?
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association is dusting off a 15-year-old submission it made to Health Canada to have the technology approved for use on beef.?
Health Canada gave the CCA’s 1998 petition a favourable recommendation and published proposed amendments to the Food and Drug Regulations in the Canada Gazette Part 1 Nov. 23, 2002.?
“We got that far, and we never got further than that,” said Mark Klassen, director of technical services with the CCA.?
Health Canada terminated the approval process because of public backlash to irradiation technology.?
The CCA has continued to push for regulatory approval of the food safety technology, and the effort finally appears to be gaining traction in Ottawa.?
“The situation with the E. coli recall may have served to remind the government of Canada of the good that irradiation can do,” said Klassen.?
Eighteen Canadians became ill last year after eating E. coli tainted beef from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta. Health Canada says food irradiation greatly reduces bacteria and other micro-organisms that may be present in food.?
However, consumer attitudes about irradiation were softening even before the XL Foods incident. ?
The Consumers’ Association of Canada has come out in favour of the technology following the release of a 2012 survey that showed two-thirds of Canadians support having irradiated food as a choice at grocery stores and half would consider buying it.?
Klassen said it took 30 years for the public to accept pasteurization.?
“New things take time, no matter how much sense this makes to those of us who work in food safety,” he said.?
Packers have expressed interest in using irradiation to reduce the risk of people getting sick from eating ground beef, said Klassen.?
However, there remains strong opposition to the technology from groups such as the Center for Food Safety, a U.S. non-profit organization opposed to what it considers harmful food production technologies such as genetic modification and irradiation.?
“Irradiation is just one more way to shortcut taking care of food right in the first place,” said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analysts for the centre.?
“It’s one more way that industrial meat production is trying to make up for basically crowding animals together.”?
More than 50 countries permit food irradiation, but the only products approved in Canada are potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, spices and dehydrated seasonings.?
“Canada really is a leader in this area from a technology perspective,” said Klassen.?
“Canadian companies are helping other countries all around the world build systems to irradiate food, and meanwhile we haven’t approved anything new since the 1960s. It’s an ironic scenario for sure.”?
He hopes that will change with the reactivation of the CCA’s 1998 Health Canada submission. Klassen plans to have all the necessary documentation submitted by the end of May.?
Tino Pereira, chief executive officer of Iotron Industries Canada/USA Inc., hopes the submission is successful this time around.?
The Canadian company operates electron beam irradiation facilities in Vancouver and Columbia City, Indiana. ?
The U.S. plant does irradiation work for a beef packer, leafy green processor and feed manufacturer. No agricultural products run under the electron beam at the Vancouver plant because so few products are approved in Canada.?
“The States are a little bit more aggressive in terms of moving things forward,” said Pereira.?
“The infrastructure in Canada may be a little bit more sluggish to react.”?
U.S. processors have been irradiating ground beef since 2000. ?
Iotron’s main business is the sterilization of medical instruments and prosthetics. The technology is also used to improve the performance properties of materials used in the aerospace and defence industries.?
However, the two plants are running at 70 percent capacity, and Iotron believes agriculture would provide revenue stability for a company that has been relying on customers that produce products with short five- to 10-year lifecycles.?
Ground beef would be the largest potential agricultural market, but the company also sees a future in irradiating Canadian grain destined for overseas markets that have approved food irradiation technology. ?
Iotron is speaking with grain company executives in Alberta and Saskatchewan about the potential to use the technology on bagged grain destined for niche markets.?
“The interest is there. It’s just managing the additional costs and convincing the companies that there is a benefit to buying that insurance that product recalls don’t occur, your reputation doesn’t suffer and so forth,” said Pereira.?
There were 18,964 laboratory-confirmed cases of food-borne illness in the U.S. in 2011, according to the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network.?
Food generally requires a low dose of one to 20 kilograys (kGy) of absorbed energy. Ground beef and leafy greens are approved to a maximum of seven kGy in the U.S., which requires a matter of seconds under the electron beams.?
Pereira said a low dose application would typically cost 10 to 15 cents per pound of product, depending on volume and other factors. ?
The electron beam attacks the DNA in pests and pathogens, rendering them sterile.?
Iotron’s technology was developed by Atomic Energy of Canada as an alternative to nuclear-based gamma ray irradiation. ?
In the Iotron process, an electron beam accelerator converts electricity into electrons that are beamed through products.?
Pereira said the word “irradiation” scares people, making them think the resulting food is full of radiation or lacking nutrients. However, he said that is not the case.?
“This thing has been studied to death and really there is no clear indication that there is any negative impact on the food,” he said.?
In a document answering frequently asked questions about the technology, Health Canada states that no radioactive energy remains in the food after treatment.?
The document says irradiation causes minor chemical modifications similar to cooking but does not diminish the nutritional value of food.?
The United Nations’ World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization say irradiation is a safe way to reduce food-borne illness and disease in food products.?
Pereira said irradiation not only reduces the chance people will get sick from eating contaminated food, but also extends the shelf life of fresh fruit by two or three weeks. ?
It is also an alternative to methyl bromide fumigation and other forms of insecticides.?
Irradiated food has to be labeled, but Hanson said there are plenty of loopholes in U.S. labelling laws. For instance, a package of irradiated ground beef has to be labelled but frozen lasagna that contains irradiated ground beef does not. As well, restaurant customers have no idea when they are consuming irradiated products.?
“Our labelling requirements are pretty weak,” he said.?
His advice to Canadians concerned about irradiated food is to push for tougher labelling laws.