Food safety and Canada’s economy: time to start using gamma rays, the sharpest tool in our toolbox

Mankind has since the beginning of time been waging daily, life-or-death war against toxic microbes in food. We either kill the microbes or they kill us; it really is that simple. Our primary weapons in this war, from earliest times to today, were basic sanitation, timing, and heat. Generally speaking, the cleaner your hands are when preparing food, and the sooner food is cooked and eaten after harvest or slaughter, the better. Refrigeration and freezing have helped immeasurably in extending the time you have to safely eat food in your possession, and of course pasteurization and canning help too. But if you like fresh food, and who doesn’t, then hygiene, timing, and heat are almost utterly indispensable.

These weapons are effective, but the microbes are multitudinous and relentless. In the early stages of urbanization that accompanied the First Industrial Revolution, there was neither widespread, easy access to clean water nor efficient sewage and waste disposal. Sanitation was a daily problem and so therefore was foodborne disease. The phenomenon of public health alerts of food-borne disease outbreaks like salmonella and E. Coli began in Great Britain only in 1939. It is safe to assume that up to then fatalities and illnesses from major and minor outbreaks of foodborne disease were relatively common.

Through the 20th Century the modern food industry developed relatively effective methods of moving huge amounts of food from where it is produced to where consumers buy it. But the central reality of much food, and especially meat, is that it is perishable. With the advent of the legal principle of caveat venditor—let the seller beware—the onus fell increasingly on meat producers to ensure the highest reasonably achievable standard of cleanliness. But caveat emptor supersedes caveat venditor as a practical principle at the end of the day. And without clean water, consumers would simply not be able to ensure food safety at their end. A lot of people today are concerned about impending water shortages. That is a frightening prospect.

The current scare over E.Coli at the meat plant in Alberta highlights the difficulty of always winning the daily battles, even in affluent western countries where ubiquitous safe water is taken for granted. If meat producers in this country were to treat their products with gamma, x-ray, or electron beam energy, they would add an extremely effective weapon against the microbes.

Gamma energy is the most widespread and efficient of the types mentioned above. There are two practical man-made sources of gamma rays of sufficient strength to sterilize food: the nuclear isotopes cobalt-60 and cesium-137. Both are made in fission reactors, and both are produced in Canadian-made reactors like the famous NRU at Chalk River and various CANDUs in Ontario. In fact, Canada is the world leader in Co-60 production. This country has pioneered many of the uses for the isotope. Nordion, an Ottawa-based spin-off from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and one of the most innovative of Ottawa’s technology companies, recently launched a Gamma Centre of Excellence.

Gamma sterilization of food is a long-studied and perfectly safe way to ensure food safety. The World Health Organization recently published a lengthy report on the subject of whether food irradiated with high gamma doses poses any risk. The answer is no. Here is the report’s conclusion, which you can find on page 197 of the linked PDF.

The acceptability in niche markets of various high-dose irradiated products, including meat items and whole meals, and the lack of any health problems resulting from their consumption, provide practical evidence of the effectiveness and appropriateness of the radiation-sterilization process.

It is urgently necessary for Canada to expand the use of gamma rays to ensure food safety. This is a matter of economic survival: these regular scares over preventable pathogen discoveries are hurting vital export industries. It is also a matter of public safety. Eliminate microbes at source, and the food system is that much safer. If the feared water shortages ever materialize, we will not have the luxury of endlessly debating the endless and ill-informed and highly irresponsible claims that irradiation of food poses any sort of threat.

If and when Canada adopts gamma irradiation of meat and other victuals, there will of course be an outcry from the usual anti-nuclear suspects. Ignore them, and the outcry will cry itself out. Heed them, and we’ll continue on with these totally preventable food outbreak scares and lose both export markets and human lives.

See also:

Nuclear “waste” is a solution to major public health problems

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11 years ago

I would like to have radiation sterilized eggs so I could safely make the many classic recipies that call for raw eggs.

11 years ago

“Venditor”? So “vendor” is just an English word, not English and Latin both?

Andrew Jaremko
11 years ago

Steve – thanks for this post. I keep listening for any hint of a suggestion of radiation sterilization of food in the news media but there’s never a sign. I also wonder – is radiation sterilization of drinking water supplies practical? This could reduce the amount of chlorine or other anti-microbials necessary to keep water safe (I suspect some would always be needed for the transit through distribution pipes). And would there be any point in suggesting home radiation sterilizers to help preserve our leftovers? And I’m only slightly joking about this; I realize the mainstream media couldn’t possibly treat the idea seriously.

11 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Jaremko

Andrew, I have noticed the same thing — no mention whatsoever of radiosterilization of food. This is sort of surprising, given the size of the beef recall and the size of the political problems it is beginning to cause. This needs a push.