04/28/2013 02:00 EDT | Updated 06/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Beef industry asking Ottawa to approve irradiation to kill dangerous E. coli

Canada's beef industry is about to ask the federal government to approve the use of irradiation in meat-processing plants to kill dangerous E. coli bacteria in a full range of meat products.

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association says it is updating an application that was first made to Health Canada in 1998 for ground beef, but was turned down because of public concerns.

Irradiation involves bombarding meat with radiant energy similar to X-rays.

"Food irradiation is likely the most effective intervention remaining that we don't already use. And when you add irradiation, on top of the existing food safety system, we could essentially eliminate E.-coli-related illness from beef products," said Mark Klassen, the association's director of technical services.

"Our proposal now is saying we would like to get permission to irradiate any kind of beef."

The updated proposal to be filed with Health Canada follows recent E. coli outbreaks in beef that made national headlines. E. coli linked to frozen beef burgers from Cardinal Meat Specialists in Ontario made eight people ill in that province, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan last December and this past February.

Last fall, 18 people in British Columbia, Quebec, Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador got sick from E. coli linked to beef from what was then the XL Foods plant in southern Alberta. The tainted beef led to the largest meat recall in Canadian history.

The cattlemen's association says its proposal calls for irradiated beef to be clearly labelled to give consumers the choice if they want to buy such products. The proposal closely mirrors a policy that has been in place in the United States since 2000.

Labelling could include the international green-and-white Radura symbol that indicates food has been irradiated and wording that states the meat has been treated with radiation.

Klassen said proper labelling and consumer education will be key to winning over consumers if the proposal is accepted.

"What I have found is that you start out with support for this probably from about 50 per cent of Canadians. And then you tell them what it is and what it can do, and you explain how it can reduce bacteria like E. coli 0157, and that number goes up probably to three-quarters."

A survey commissioned by the Consumers' Association of Canada last year suggested most people didn't know what food irradiation was, but when it was explained, two-thirds said they supported irradiated meat being sold in stores.

While the industry is asking for approval to irradiate a full range of beef products, Klassen said meat companies would focus on the ground beef market.

He compared the idea of beef irradiation in Canada to the introduction of milk pasteurization in 1908, which initially faced resistance but eventually won over most consumers.

Prof. Keith Warriner, a University of Guelph food safety expert, said irradiation kills E. coli by degrading the bacteria's DNA. The process can turn the colour of meat slightly grey, but doesn't change its taste.

Warriner said many Canadians eat irradiated food every day. They just don't know it.

"Irradiation is safe. Most of potatoes, onions and spices have been irradiated. It's not like we don't eat irradiated food. We actually do," he said.

"I think the meat industry has a good argument in this case. It would be another safety barrier."

If Health Canada approves beef irradiation, it will be important to ensure that industry and consumers don't lower their guard when it comes to food safety, Warriner added.

The government would have to ensure companies didn't use the process to treat marginal products, he said. And irradiation wouldn't be an excuse for the government or companies to reduce safety inspections and protocols in beef plants.

People cooking with irradiated beef would also have to continue properly handling, preparing and refrigerating the meat, Warriner said.

"It is just another tool in the box to keep our food safe. It is not a golden bullet."

Health Canada said if it receives a submission for food irradiation that has been turned down in the past, the department only needs to confirm conclusions of a safety evaluation based on the latest scientific information.

There is no specific timeline for approval, but any changes would require amendments to federal food and drug regulations.

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association expects the earliest it could get a ruling from Ottawa would be sometime next year.

Klassen said irradiated beef would also be more expensive — 22 cents more per kilogram.

"There is a population that would look to this product because they have come to understand the benefits and they feel paying 10 cents per pound (more) would be a reasonable price to pay for what is likely the most effective, scientifically proven intervention that we don't already use in Canada."

The Canadian Meat Council is also lobbying Health Canada to allow food irradiation for the poultry industry.