It's barbecue season, and Canadians might soon be flipping burgers that have been bathed in radiation before they hit the grill. Health Canada is preparing to propose regulatory changes that, if they go forward, will allow the sale of "irradiated ground beef," a spokesperson confirmed to Motherboard.
Those words have a creepy, Cold War vibe, and they definitely don't sound very appetizing. But zapping foods with radiation is actually one of the best ways we've got to kill off E. coli and other dangerous, and potentially deadly, foodborne pathogens. Our food supply is increasingly complex, with links that now stretch around the world—and one outbreak can potentially put thousands of people at risk. In the US, one in six people gets sick from contaminated food and drink every year. Four million Canadians do, too.
There seems to be a growing acceptance that we should be blasting at least some of our food with radiation, so that it's safer to consume.
"The problem with beef is that we make it into hamburgers, and people don't cook them right," said food safety expert Keith Warriner, a professor of food science at the University of Guelph, in an interview with Motherboard. "These pathogens are very virulent," and food safety is all about keeping dangerous pathogens away from consumers. "We assume they're going to do everything wrong," he said, and that nobody's using a meat thermometer to check a hamburger patty's internal temperature before they take a bite.
Irradiation's already been practiced for a long time, at least on certain foods. In Canada, wheat, spices, potatoes and onions are already zapped with beams of radiation, which is akin to putting them through an X-ray machine, Warriner said.
NASA astronauts eat beef and other foods that's been irradiated when they fly, because a bout of food poisoning would be majorly inconvenient (if not worse) aboard the International Space Station. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration has approved all kinds of foods for the process, from beef, pork, and poultry to lettuce and spices. (US foods that have been irradiated are marked with a green circle containing a tree-like symbol.)
"The millennial generation seems to be more accepting of radiation," Warriner said. "When [I was] growing up, we associated it with the Cuba crisis, and nuclear bombs."
People understand the dangers of foodborne illness, maybe better than ever. Canadians can't forget the 2008 listeriosis outbreak that was linked to a Maple Leaf Foods plant. Twenty-two people died. In the aftermath, food safety experts questioned why Ottawa wasn't allowing food irradiation. The beef industry has requested it, too.
It looks like these groups might get their wish.
Not everyone is thrilled. Critics of irradiation say that it can produce certain changes in the food—like the production of compounds known as free radicals. Warriner acknowledged that this can happen, but says that it isn't really of concern. "At the low doses we use for our food, there are no real byproducts formed," he said. "If you burn toast and eat it, you've got more of a risk of [developing] cancer than you would with irradiated food."
One of the main problems of irradiated foods, he continued, is a "wet dog odour" that sometimes clings to meats after the process. But that's not really a problem at low doses. (And, no, it doesn't make food radioactive.)
At the end of the day, just about everyone would probably rather eat a non-irradiated (and non-contaminated) hamburger, instead of the alternative. But if our increasingly sprawling, and interconnected, food system is going to feed all of us—and do it safely—we'll have to look at techniques like irradiation. This is our future.