KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Take heart, North American proponents of food irradiation. Canadian Cattlemen magazine recently reported that a long-languishing petition up in the Great White North to allow ionizing irradiation as one way to control bacteria and other pathogens in Canadian beef may soon get a badly needed jump-start. The article relays the Canadian Cattlemen's Association said it plans to soon turn in paperwork that would reactivate the process of seeking beef irradiation approval — and this is being done at the request of Health Canada.
First filing its petition for that approval in 1998, the CCA said it has undertaken many efforts during the last 15 years toward getting approval of regulatory amendments needed to finally allow beef irradiation. In 2003, Health Canada completed its scientific review of beef irradiation and submitted a positive recommendation on the proposal. However, the final steps of publishing the proposed new regulation have yet to be completed, the CCA charges.
Approving beef irradiation has been a long time coming. A regulatory proposal worked its way to the Canada Gazette in November 2002 and as a result a Canadian code of practice for food irradiation was developed. Health Canada said in 2012 that due to significant public concerns related to irradiation, the Canadian federal government didn't push onward with regulations at that particular point in time — and that it had no plans to do so in the near future.
Canada currently allows irradiating potatoes and onions to inhibit sprouting during storage; wheat, flour and whole wheat flour for insect control in stored food; and whole or ground spices and dehydrated seasonings to reduce microbial load, the CC article relayed. Health Canada has also finished reviews of proposals to use irradiation on poultry, shrimp, prawns and mangoes. Meanwhile, the United States has approved irradiation of red meat, poultry plus fresh fruits and vegetables.
The timing for this action couldn’t be better. In February, a survey conducted by Angus Reid, commissioned by the Consumers Association of Canada, uncovered that two in five Canadians are "very concerned" with potential for bacteria in chicken, hamburger and deli meats. But believe it or not, 57 percent of respondents claim they have never heard of food irradiation. Proponents have pointed out forever that the more consumers learn about the safety and effectiveness of irradiation, the more likely they are to accept it. So, it looks like an education program is definitely in order.
For those who accept and support food irradiation in the US, you likely already know that the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), among other respected organizations throughout the world, have recognized irradiation for many years as a safe, scientifically valid process to reduce levels of harmful organisms that cause foodborne illness.
But after irradiation of ground beef finally began to catch on and increase in the US near the turn of this young century — starting from supermarkets on the East Coast and then spreading rapidly westward — its growth came to an abrupt halt after the leading supplier of this technology at that time went out of business. Although very little has been publicized in the trade press during the last decade about meat irradiation in the US, this process still is being used in this country and is still very much alive.
“Wegmans Food Markets Inc. [Rochester, NY], Omaha Steaks International Inc. [Omaha, Neb.] and Schwan’s [The Schwan Food Co. Inc., Marshall, Minn.] irradiate their ground beef,” Ron Eustice, a food quality and safety consultant based in Savage, Minn. and Tucson, Ariz., recently told me.
The US is seeing increased interest in meat irradiation because of Salmonella and non-O157:H7 E. coli reports and concerns, he added. The US irradiates 15 to 18 million lbs. of meat per year — plus Schwan’s and Omaha Steaks irradiate 100 percent of their raw ground beef and have done so since 2000.
“Volume is steady,” Eustice insists.
What’s particularly exciting at this point in time is there are three new, recently approved irradiation companies that plan to irradiate food; two will be focused exclusively on food, Eustice says. Gateway America, Gulfport, Miss., will treat all types of food, including seafood, meat and produce. Pa'ina in Hawaii will primarily irradiate produce, but it can also treat seafood and meat. And Iotron Ltd., a British Columbia-based company with nearly two decades of experience in irradiation, has opened a facility in Columbus, Ind.
“There is a lot happening [in meat irradiation in the US], it's just that the folks need to tell their story,” Eustice says.
I’ve long heard that the last lines of food-safety defense are the consumers (at retail) and operators and food handlers (in foodservice channels). In this day of heightened consumer awareness regarding food safety and increasing demands by consumers and customers to improve the safety of meat and poultry, it’s a safe bet that more meat and poultry processors will be investigating incorporating some form of post-packaging pasteurization in the near future.
When it comes to post-packaging pasteurization, food irradiation isn’t the only game in town. William (Benjy) Mikel, Ph.D., associate vice president, International Programs, executive director, International Institute at Mississippi State Univ., and his associates have written a good summary of PPP processes in a presentation titled “Post-Packaging Pasteurization: Will it work with Country-Cured Hams?” and the PPP formats include:
• Non-thermal — High-pressure processing, pulsed electric field, ultraviolet light, electrolyzed oxidizing water and irradiation (gamma, electron beam and x-ray).
• Post-packaging heat pasteurization — Heat reapplied to package surfaces, hot water immersion, surface steam plus hot air or infrared.
With many choices to choose from, what PPP format are meat and poultry processors using most today?
“I think HPP has become the technology of choice for post-package pasteurization,” said James Marsden, PhD., Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Meat Science and associate director of the National Agriculture Biosecurity Center, Kansas State Univ. “So long as there is no labeling requirement, I think [post-packaging pasteurization] will increasingly be adopted. That means HPP will be the preferred technology. For processed meats, it virtually eliminates the risk of Listeria, especially when combined with a secondary inhibitor. I believe the industry will pasteurize almost all processed meat products except for specialty artisan products.
“Fresh meat poses bigger challenges. If irradiation is adopted, I believe it will be in the form of electronic pasteurization using e-beams or x-rays,” he continued.
“I think as the industry continues to strive to produce the safest product possible, PPP will become more prevalent as a proven technology to enhance the safety of the food supply,” Mikel said.
It will be interesting to see how post-packaging pasteurization fares in the US meat and poultry industry — and which PPP format will be the process of choice. Regardless of the format chosen, it will be a winning solution because even safer meat and poultry will be the end result.