There's a week left for people to tell Health Canada what they think about irradiation of beef, poultry, prawns, shrimp and papaya. If no one makes a strong enough case, or, more likely, if no one knows this is even an issue (what, you didn't read the notice in Canada Gazette?), Health Canada will give the go-ahead.The go-ahead won't just expand the list of foods that can be zapped. It actually allows much higher levels of irradiation.
Without the public knowing much about it, Health Canada has long allowed irradiation of potatoes, onions, flour and spices. The dose of radiation was relatively low because it was just designed to prevent sprouting or kill insects. The new radiant foods will be zapped with about 10 times that dose, the rough equivalent of 150 million X-rays, to give foods a long shelf life or kill nasties such as E. coli and salmonella.
Though political parties and the media haven't weighed in, the debate on the impending approval of irradiation rages hot and heavy among food and nuclear aficionados.
On the pro side are a host of respected and prestigious organizations such as the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control, various branches of the U.S. government and assorted business groups, mainly from the beef industry. Indeed, Ronald Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council, came to one of Health Canada's eight wintertime public hearings to describe irradiation as "the fourth pillar of public health" that will soon rank alongside immunization, pasteurization and chlorination.
On the anti side are a range of Canadian environmental activists, U.S. public interest groups inspired by Ralph Nader, and scientists from senior research organizations in France and Germany, reports from which led the European Parliament to put the kibosh on food irradiation.
(Yes, the split on this issue is much the same as on invading Iraq. So is the post-9/11 rhetoric. Pro-irradiationists speak constantly of the "arsenal" of "weapons" that can "kill" or "bombard" or "destroy" bacteria, words that indicate mental states far removed from the complexities of food contamination and bacteria, which are both good and bad for humans.)
The experts are debating whether radiation depletes too many vitamins from food, whether the burn from radiation creates unique radiolytic products (URPs) that cause cancer and whether radiation kills off good bacteria that keep some food-borne diseases such as botulism in check.
Health Canada spokespeople insist the dose is low enough to preclude dangerous consequences. "There is potential to produce URPs," says spokesperson Paul Myers. "But at these treatment levels the presence of such compounds would be extremely low."
How low is "low"? We're not about to find out. Because irradiation has been arbitrarily defined as a "process" rather than an "additive," the review standards are more lax and URPs, sheerly the creation of irradiation, don't have to be assessed. Amazing what governments can do when they want something to happen fast.
Those who suspect that public policy can best be understood by following the money will wonder why shrimp, prawns and papaya got put on a nuclear hit list alongside chicken and beef. In 1987, among the federal government's many handouts to the nuclear industry, Canada gave Thailand a $4.8-million food irradiator. In case the Thais feared Canadians, even bearing nuclear gifts, Canada promised to open its markets to irradiated imports from Thailand.
Singling out Thai imports indicates how far we've come from the days when food imported from California, Florida and Mexico was considered long-distance. The next generation of food imports will be coming from the tropical South, mostly countries where the mass of people go hungry so that low-cost exotic foods can be exported to the wealthy North -- all made easier by irradiation's longer shelf life.
Health Canada's impending approval of a new list of zapping candidates violates some basic principles of the Canadian health system -- like publicly accessible information. A 120-day discussion period with eight unpublicized pit stops and no debate in the House of Commons or media does not constitute public information. Nor do Health Canada's proposed labelling requirements. Food sold in restaurants and cafeterias does not have to be identified as irradiated. Nor do ingredients mixed into processed and prepared foods such as baby foods.
Radiation is full of possibilities for unanticipated errors. What, in this post-9/11 world, is to be done about the irradiation facilities themselves -- with their nuclear material, cobalt 60 and all -- that are proliferating in chicken and beef slaughterhouses across the country? Will these become easy atomic pickings for terrorists? Since only the biggest companies with huge volumes will be able to afford the equipment, what will centralized slaughterhouses do to local food producers? To the best of my knowledge, no one has even checked out such plausible scenarios.
And if "do no harm" (the obligation to seek out the least invasive option first) were applied, irradiation, like many other inventions looking for a use, wouldn't have a leg to stand on. The evidence is conclusive that many of the problems that lead to E. coli and salmonella could be controlled if livestock were properly fed prior to slaughter and if the assembly lines at slaughterhouses were more carefully managed.
Indeed, the main sources of E. coli and salmonella, the mad bacterial terrorists to be put under the gun of irradiation, are not beef and chicken but veggies and eggs. That's because the main problems that lead to food-borne disease come from handling, not the eats themselves -- so doesn't it make more sense to improve handling than to change the nature of food?
Dave Martin, nuclear policy adviser for the Sierra Club of Canada, warns that if this tech ends up as part of the food system, Canadians won't bite. "I think that with a little knowledge, consumers will reject irradiated food," he says.
He has one word. Boycott. With files by Catherine Farquharson