November 7, 2008



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Canadians' confidence in government food inspection programs is plummeting as the number of fatalities linked to tainted meat products mounts, says Diane Katz, director of risk, environment and energy policy studies for the Fraser Institute.

In predictable fashion, officials are promising to resolve the crisis by increasing their budgets.  But matters won't improve in any meaningful way until food safety policy is shaped by science rather than politics, says Katz:

  • The 13 deaths associated with the outbreak of listeriosis in processed meats from Maple Leaf Foods in Toronto would be tragic under any circumstances.
  • But they are all the more so given the ready availability of safe biotechnology that can destroy a great deal of the microbial contamination that sickens millions of Canadians each year and costs the economy more than $14 billion.

There's no guarantee of risk-free eating, of course.  More than 250 diseases are transmitted through food by biological hazards -- a vast number of which are invited by consumers' mishandling of perishables.  But the use of irradiation can significantly reduce incidences of food-borne illness, says Katz:

  • Exposing food to radiant energy such as microwaves and gamma rays kills bacteria or halts their proliferation.
  • The process has undergone decades of research and has been deemed safe and effective by more than 50 countries.
  • According to the Canadian Institute of Food Science Technology: "From a toxicological, microbiological or nutritional point of view, the process of food irradiation is at least as safe as other, more conventional, well accepted food processes such as pasteurization and canning."

Yet Health Canada has not finalized any petition for food irradiation since 1984, when permission was granted to irradiate wheat and flour against insect infestations.  Only three other applications have been approved in the past 25 years: for potatoes, to control sprouting and extend shelf life, in 1960; for onions, to inhibit sprouting, in 1965; and, to decontaminate herbs, in 1984.

Source: Diane Katz, " Science and Safety; Listeriosis crisis demonstrates need for greater use of biotech," Fraser Institute, October 2008.

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