A consumer advocate is pushing Ottawa to promote the irradiation of chicken to kill illness-causing bugs and to do a better job of getting buyers on board.
Bruce Cran of the Consumers Association of Canada said the federal government has done “an incompetent job” informing Canadians that irradiation is safe and he worries that a lack of action could lead to a deadly outbreak.
“They need to promote an understanding so Canadians can make an informed choice, and they’re not doing that for whatever reason,” Cran said. “This is not only a safe practice, it’s one that many of us would like to be able to use.”
Earlier this year, the federal government approved the sale of ground beef treated with radiant energy similar to X-rays to reduce the risk of illnesses caused by E. coli and salmonella. The products must be labelled to include an international symbol on packaging — usually a green plant inside a circle.
The U.S. has allowed meat to be treated for years, but that country’s Food and Drug Administration has noted that consumers’ acceptance has been slowed by confusion over how irradiation works and what it does. It notes some people believe it makes food radioactive.
“Our members would absolutely support it,” said Robin Horel, president of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council.
“But we haven’t pushed hard because … the companies that produce chicken and turkey are concerned about what the consumer response would be.”
Anna Madison, a spokeswoman for Health Canada, said in an email the federal government would not promote irradiation since it does not engage in promotional activities.
The federal department last examined irradiation for poultry in the early 2000s, but it did not amend regulations to allow it because of concerns from some stakeholders.
Karen Graham, who chaired a panel of Canadian dietitians in the 1980s that considered the issue, said irradiated foods lose vitamin B and fats such as healthy omega-3 are broken down. It can also kill healthy bacteria.
Critics also claim irradiation produces toxins, such as benzene, and changes the taste of meat.
“There aren’t consumers with placards saying give us irradiation. This is very much industry driven,” Graham said in an interview from Kelowna, B.C.
Rick Holley, professor emeritus of food microbiology and food safety at University of Manitoba, said irradiation is safe and is even more important for chicken than for ground beef. Chicken causes more illness in Canada, he said.
Holley said salmonella is naturally present on a lot of chicken and the gastro-intestinal bacteria campylobactor is present on all of it, regardless of whether a bird is free-range or factory.
“Both of these organisms occasionally kill, but because they make more people ill who recover, then the emphasis is not placed on them to the same extent as E. coli O157 in hamburger,” said Holley, who suggested that irradiating chicken could cut food-related illness in Canada by 25 per cent.
“The political will is certainly there, but it will only move forward in this regard when consumers are made aware of the extent of the problem and the fact that irradiation is such a suitable solution.”
The Health Canada review noted an unpleasant odour with doses of irradiation higher than the one that was being considered for fresh chicken, but the smell was more likely to be noticed by experienced judges than average consumers. It also said the smell disappeared after a few days or after cooking.
Monique Lacroix, a researcher at the Canadian Irradiation Centre and at INRS-Institute Armand Frappier in Laval, Que., said in an interview last year that irradiation done at the low levels proposed by the meat industry, doesn’t increase benzene or free radicals in an amount to be of concern. She noted that barbecuing meat produces billions of free radicals.
Graham, however, said irradiation is one more added process that negatively affects food.
“You still have storage. You still have refrigeration. You still have freezing. You still have all those things which are going to cause some nutrient loss — and then you’re adding irradiation on top of it which also is going to create some losses.”