Canada’s most famous son, astronaut Chris Hadfield, just blasted off to the International Space Station. He and his two fellow travelers will fly up to the ISS, where he will stay for the next five months—taking command, the first Canadian to do so, in March—and basically do science and medical experiments. In space, no one will come and fetch you to a hospital if you catch a foodborne disease. So Hadfield his colleagues, if they want to enjoy a steak while whizzing around the planet at 29,000 kilometers an hour, will eat irradiated food. That will minimize the chance of him and his colleagues catching a foodborne disease in the first place.
The Radura, the international symbol for irradiated food. Food labeled with the Radura means that the food has been briefly treated with radiation, usually gamma rays. Food with this label is safer than food without it. That is because the brief gamma treatment kills dangerous foodborne pathogens like E. coli and salmonella so that they cannot kill us. It does not damage the food.
Here on the patch of the planet called Canada, we don’t take the kinds of precautions that astronauts and cosmonauts do. That’s a bit mystifying, considering we possess, in fact we played a large part in inventing, the very irradiation technology that can make our beef much safer. I’m talking about gamma irradiation of food, of course. Canada is a world leader in manufacturing the machines that safely send out beams of gamma rays. Nordion, a company that used to be part of Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL), is a hugely successful maker of these machines.
The consequences to our not employing this proven gamma-ray technology are stark. Canada last week experienced yet another beef recall, involving frozen beef burgers. Cases of E. coli bacteria contamination were related to the recalled products. This of course followed the huge beef recall in September, involving Alberta’s Excel Foods.
I said at the time that Canada’s food industry needs to get its act together and introduce gamma irradiation to beef processing; this will dramatically cut back if not eliminate dangerous pathogens in the food we put on our tables. How many more food recalls do there have to be before gamma irradiation enters the mainstream in food processing? Inaction simply continues to put people at risk.
Canada’s food industry is a major exporter. Can we continue to jeopardize export revenue, through sheer inaction on a proven safe method of protecting our food?
Gamma rays come from man-made radioisotopes like cobalt-60 and cesium-137. Both are made in nuclear reactors. As with irradiation machines, Canada is also the world leader in Co-60 production. We make it in reactors like the NRU at Chalk River, which is a research reactor designed to produce large numbers of neutrons, and in CANDUs like those operated by Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation. (CANDUs also make all the electricity in the “Nuclear” category in Tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar.) If Canada got its act together and finally started making food safer with gamma rays, this would spur the rest of the world to use this safe and effective technology. Countries like Bangladesh lose up to 20 percent of domestic agricultural harvests to pests, including insects. Gamma rays from Canadian Co-60 could kill those insects before they destroy the harvest.
Irradiated beef is good enough for astronauts on the International Space Station. They simply cannot afford to ingest anything contaminated. Well, if we refuse to similarly protect food here on earth, what does that say? Does it say that we here on earth can afford to risk eating contaminated food?