Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Food Irradiation

1. What is food irradiation?

Food irradiation is the treatment of food with a type of radiation energy known as ionizing radiation. Three different types of ionizing radiation can be used on foods sold in Canada; gamma rays, electron beam and x-rays. Ionizing radiation at the levels used for food irradiation contains enough energy to kill bacteria, molds, parasites and insects by damaging their DNA, both directly and by breaking water molecules into short-lived fragments that react with their DNA; but not high enough to negatively affect the nutritional quality of the food.

2. Why irradiate food?

Irradiation is used in food processing for several reasons:

  • To prevent food poisoning: by reducing the level of harmful microorganisms such as Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Campylobacter and parasites which can cause foodborne diseases.
  • To prevent spoilage: by reducing the microbial load on foods, meaning it destroys bacteria, molds and yeast which cause food to spoil, and controls insect and parasite infestation.
  • To increase shelf life: by slowing the ripening or sprouting in fresh fruits and vegetables, thereby allowing for longer shelf life.
3. How much radiation is used to irradiate food?

The use of irradiation on foods must be examined case-by-case, in relation to each specific commodity. The absorbed dose of radiation needed varies depending on the food and the reason for irradiating. For example, irradiating ground beef to reduce pathogenic organisms and the potential for foodborne illness requires a lower absorbed dose of radiation energy than the dose required to irradiate spices to reduce microbial load.

Manufacturers of irradiated foods are required to use the lowest dose of irradiation possible to achieve the required effect, consistent with Good Manufacturing Practice, but within the permitted range of absorbed doses specified in the Food and Drug Regulations.

4. Can irradiated food become radioactive?

No. Irradiation of food by gamma-rays, x-rays or high energy electrons under the approved conditions does not cause food to become radioactive. Additionally, in the process, the food does not come into contact with the radioactive source and therefore cannot become contaminated. In the case of machine sources used to irradiate foods (accelerators generating electrons or machines generating X-rays), the Food and Drug Regulations places upper limits on the energy levels that may be used for treatment of foods, such that the food cannot become radioactive. No radioactive energy (waves) remains in the food after treatment.

5. Are there currently any irradiated foods that can be sold in Canada?

To date, the following products have been examined by Health Canada and have been approved for irradiation: potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, whole and ground spices, and dehydrated seasoning preparations. Currently, the technology is not used widely on food commodities in Canada. So far, the main use of irradiation in Canada has been on spices.

6. Is the irradiation of these foods mandatory?

No, the use of irradiation on these foods is not mandatory. Regulations allow the irradiation of these foods at the discretion of food producers. The amount of irradiation that can be applied to foods for sale in Canada is limited to the amount permitted by the Food and Drug Regulations and products must be labelled according to the regulations for irradiated foods.

7. Can the irradiation of food cause harm to the consumer?

International bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), recognize the irradiation process as a safe and effective way of reducing levels of disease-causing organisms in food while maintaining the nutritional qualities of the food.

8. How is food irradiated?

During the irradiation process, food is exposed to an ionizing energy source. Three different types of ionizing radiation may be used: gamma rays, electron beams and x-rays. The length of time the food is exposed to the ionizing radiation and the energy level of exposure determine the dose of irradiation. The doses used for food irradiation do not result in the food becoming radioactive.

9. What changes to food are caused by irradiation?

Depending on the food and absorbed dose, irradiation can cause minor chemical modifications to food, similar to cooking. However, irradiation, at permitted absorbed doses, does not significantly diminish the nutritional quality of the food. Food irradiation does not lead to changes in food that, from a toxicological point of view, would have an adverse effect on human health. Microorganisms that may be present in the food, including disease-causing bacteria, are reduced or eliminated.

10. Does treatment by irradiation guarantee the absence of disease-causing microorganisms?

No. Irradiation cannot guarantee the absence of disease-causing microorganisms, but it greatly reduces their number. Irradiation is one optional tool that can be used in an overall food safety control program.

Irradiated food must still be handled, stored and cooked properly like all other foods. The rules of safe food handling, which include proper sanitation, packaging, storage and preparation, still need be followed.

Irradiation cannot be used to restore the palatability of food that is already spoiled. If food looks, smells or tastes bad before irradiation, it will still look, smell and taste bad after irradiation.

11. Who sets standards for the appropriate level of radiation?

Health Canada is responsible for setting standards for irradiated foods. Canadian standards are found in the Food and Drug Regulations and consist of a list of foods which may be irradiated, the permitted sources of ionizing radiation and the permitted absorbed doses of radiation allowed.

The Food and Drug Regulations apply to foods offered for sale in Canada, no matter where they were produced or irradiated.

12. Who is responsible for the regulation of food irradiation in Canada?

In Canada, several federal agencies are involved in regulating aspects of the food irradiation process.

The Food Directorate within Health Products and Food Branch of Health Canada, through the Food and Drugs Act, is responsible for establishing standards related to the safety of foods sold in Canada. It evaluates the effectiveness of food irradiation and assesses any possible chemical, microbiological and nutritional changes that could occur during the irradiation process before approving any new use of irradiation to ensure the safety and nutritional quality of the resulting food.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for all enforcement and compliance issues relating to irradiated foods. It administers the regulations relating to the labelling of irradiated products under the Food and Drugs Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act.

The Radiation Protection Bureau (RPB) of Health Canada is responsible promoting and protecting the health of Canadians by assessing and managing the risks posed by radiation exposure in living, working and recreational environments. In particular, they operate a centralized dose record system which contains the occupational radiation dose records of all monitored radiation workers in Canada. Dose records for monitored workers involved in the food irradiation process would be included in this dose registry. This dose record information helps the relevant regulatory authority to control occupational exposure to ionizing radiation in the workplace and to evaluate dose trends and statistics.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) (formerly the Atomic Energy Control Board or AECB) regulates the use of nuclear energy and materials in accordance with Canada's international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Food irradiation facilities must comply with these regulations. The CNSC functions as a tribunal, making independent decisions on the licensing of nuclear-related activities in Canada; establishing regulations and setting regulatory policy direction on matters relating to health, safety, security and the environment.

13. Is Canada's control of irradiation as strict as in other countries?

Many countries, for example, the United States (U.S.), member states of the European Union and Australia regulate food irradiation in much the same way as Canada.

14. Do other countries have lists of foods that have been approved for irradiation?

Health and safety authorities in over 60 countries have approved irradiation of a combined total of 40 different food classes which include spices, grain, boneless chicken, red meats, fruits and vegetables. Mexico and the U.S., for example, permit irradiation of a wider range of foods than Canada, while the European Union (E.U.), to date, has only authorized the irradiation within the whole E.U. of "dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings." Member states within the E.U., however, have clearances of their own, with France being the most permissive and the Netherlands also authorizing a number of foods for irradiation, including dried fruits, pulses, dehydrated vegetables, flakes from cereals, herbs, spices, shrimps, poultry, frog legs, gum arabic, food additives, flavourings and egg products. In the U.S., at present, irradiation of red meats, poultry and fresh fruits and vegetables is permitted along with the low-dose irradiation of all foods for arthropod disinfection and fresh foods generally to inhibit growth and maturation. The U.S. also permits the irradiation of dry enzyme preparations, dry spices/seasonings, poultry, frozen meats, refrigerated meat, frozen meat, fresh shell eggs and seeds for sprouting.

15. Is food the only commodity irradiated?

No. Irradiation has been used as a sterilization technique for years on medical disposables and hospital supplies, food packaging materials, cosmetics ingredients and joint implants.

16. What are the labelling requirements for irradiated food?

The labelling requirements for irradiated foods are set out in the Food and Drug Regulations under Section B.01.035. This section sets out labelling requirements for prepackaged irradiated food, non-prepackaged irradiated food such as those sold in bulk, and for irradiated ingredients in multi-ingredient food products.

These labelling regulations require that all irradiated food, both prepackaged and non-prepackaged, be labelled with the radura symbol, an internationally recognized irradiation symbol, and an explanatory statement such as "treated with radiation", "treated by irradiation", "irradiated", or a written statement with the same meaning. The radura symbol and the irradiation statement must be prominently displayed in close proximity to each other on the principal display panel (main panel) of the label of a prepackaged food or, in the case of non-prepackaged foods, on a sign displayed immediately next to the food at its point of sale.

The Radura Symbol:

The Radura Symbol

With respect to irradiated ingredients in multi-ingredient food products, subsection B.01.035(6) of the Food and Drug Regulations requires that any ingredient or a component (ingredient of an ingredient) of a food that has been irradiated and that comprises 10% or more of the prepackaged product (based on weight, on an individual basis), be declared in the list of ingredients by its common name preceded by the statement "irradiated".

The basis by which irradiated foods are labelled is historical. In 1983, the Codex Alimentarius Commission published and adopted the general Codex standard for irradiated foods (Codex Standard 106-1983). The standard includes labelling provisions, including the use of the radura symbol (which dates back to the 1960s). When Division 26 (Food Irradiation) of the Food and Drug Regulations were published in 1989, the provisions for labelling were aligned with the international environment.

17. What is the process for approval of irradiation in Canada?

Petitioners submit new applications for food irradiation to Health Canada for scientific review. The organization applying for approval submits scientific data that is evaluated by a team of scientists with expertise in the areas of nutrition, microbiology, chemistry and toxicology, who evaluate the impact of irradiation on food safety and nutritional quality.

If any part of the information provided is incomplete, the department would request further information or studies; if this information is not provided, the submission would be rejected. The submissions are not recommended for approval until the scientific evaluators are satisfied that the application addresses all regulatory requirements, the science is complete and the irradiated food product is safe to consume.

Once the scientists in the Food Directorate of Health Canada's Health Products and Food Branch have completed the scientific evaluation, the results are considered by their senior management team. If accepted, it is proposed as an amendment to the regulation. All proposed regulatory amendments are reviewed by the Special Committee of Council, a Cabinet committee. If accepted, the proposals are published in Canada Gazette, Part I, to allow stakeholders and the public an opportunity to comment.

All comments received during the Canada Gazette, Part I consultation are then considered by Health Canada. Only if and when any concerns or issues of a scientific nature are fully addressed does Health Canada recommend the amendment to the Cabinet committee for final approval. The final regulation is then signed by the Governor in Council and is published in Canada Gazette, Part II. At this time, the food products are considered approved for treatment by irradiation if producers choose to use that method.

18. Why has Health Canada amended the Food and Drug Regulations to permit the sale of irradiated fresh or frozen raw ground beef, and not the other foods (i.e., mangoes, poultry, shrimp and prawns) which were part of the Department's public consultation on food irradiation in 2002?

After the public consultation in 2002, Health Canada's proposal to permit the sale of irradiated mangoes, poultry, shrimp and prawns and ground beef did not advance to Canada Gazette, Part II and therefore the foods that were included in the proposal were not approved for irradiation. Recently, however, Health Canada received a request to reconsider the previous submission to irradiate fresh and frozen raw ground beef with a few minor modifications to the proposed irradiation conditions. As a result of Health Canada’s updated scientific review, the Department has amended the Food and Drug Regulations to permit the sale of fresh or frozen raw ground beef that has been irradiated in accordance with prescribed conditions.

19. Are the amendments that allow the sale of irradiated ground beef related to the 2012 XL Foods Inc. beef recall?

One recommendation from the Independent Review of XL Foods Inc. Beef Recall 2012 panel was that the beef industry should submit a proposal to Health Canada to approve irradiation as an effective food safety intervention, and that Health Canada should give the application prompt consideration.” A second recommendation was that the “CFIA and Health Canada should continue to expedite the approval of interventions, especially those approved and commonly practised by our food trading partners.”

Health Canada assigned high priority to evaluating a request to permit irradiation of fresh and frozen raw ground beef.  The evaluation found this treatment to be a safe, effective food safety intervention for this food.  As a result, Health Canada has amended the Food and Drug Regulations to permit the sale of fresh or frozen raw ground beef that has been irradiated in accordance with the prescribed conditions.

20. Does the increase in machine operating energy level from 5.0 MeV to 7.5 MeV for X-rays generated from a machine source, when the target material is tantalum or gold, affect the background levels of radioactivity in ground beef?

No. The opinion of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is that this increase in energy level would not affect the background radioactivity of food.

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