The September 1st deadline for public comments on proposed legislation that would allow firms to irradiate beef draws near. While the previous effort to bring irradiation to the beef industry in 2002 failed, there is hope that the events of the intervening 14 years might have shifted public attitudes. However criticisms of the potential plan are already emerging and not just from consumers. While it might be intuitive to assume that the beef industry in Canada is united in their support for this move – it was industry stakeholders who pushed for the first consult in 2002, and again this year – the beef industry itself is divided.

The National Farmers Union (NFU), representing family-owned farms including cattle farms in Canada, has submitted a letter to Health Canada objecting to the potential changes. Their primary concerns are economic. The NFU are concerned that irradiation equipment would be too expensive for smaller beef packers, thus driving them out of business, while JBS and Cargill will easily distribute the capital outlays for irradiation equipment across their sprawling businesses. The ensuing consolidation of an already heavily consolidated industry would further establish Cargill and JBS, who already process 90% of the federally registered beef in Canada, as the only buyers of beef to whom farmers may sell their cattle. Such oligopolistic conditions, they argue, will ultimately produce downward price pressure. This would mean less money per head for farmers. It will limit the number packers to whom cattle ranchers could sell to and thus limit competition, and would further reduce already rather limited consumer choice.

Another concern is that the proposed change would allow for the importing of irradiated beef from the United States where beef processors have been permitted to irradiate beef for over a decade. Not only would this contribute to further downward price pressure on farmers to compete with cheap imported beef, it would displace domestically slaughtered beef and swaths slaughter and packing jobs. The NFU states that because the proposed Canadian regulation is nearly identical to that in the US that “it would effectively erase the Canadian border in regard to ground beef”.

While I am sympathetic to these concerns and I am an enthusiastic proponent of local, small-scale agriculture and family farms, there are some important considerations to make here. The first is that the proposed legislation allows beef processors to irradiate beef should they choose to, it does not require that beef producers irradiate their product. The new legislation isn’t going to suddenly put small firms out of compliance with the law. This is only a problem if irradiated beef is met with massive consumer demand and by not irradiating smaller processors would be severely disadvantaged.

With respect to imports, the majority of beef in the United States currently is not irradiated and thus would not be precluded from import anyway. Harmonizing legislation between Canada and the United States would pertain to the very small percent of US beef that is irradiated, very likely a drop in the bucket overall and not likely to pose an immediate threat to Canadian firms.

It might then be argued that while the proposed legislation doesn’t require irradiation, market demand will serve as an sort of proxy whereby if any firm that wants to compete they must irradiate. This seems to assume widespread, maybe even pent up demand for irradiated beef. The evidence from the United States, however, suggests demand is limited. Irradiated beef is available only under a hand full of brand names at a small number of retailers and restaurants. As I argue in a past post there are also unanswered question regarding what the market impacts are of irradiated beef. Will there be an “irradiated ghetto” off in the corner of the meat case touched by consumers only when the the grocer is out of the non-irradiated cut the consumer desires? Will brands begin competing on the premise of their beef being “non-irradiated” or vice-versa? Will it not matter and will consumers simply ignore the label because they don’t care, grabbing whichever tray of beef they need for tonight’s dinner regardless of the presence of a radura logo?

Given all of this, I can’t help but see the economic concerns of the NFU as a strawman. As I said before, beef producers and the government agencies that support them have an uphill battle. In over a decade in the US, irradiated beef is not a blockbuster, and I don’t think it will be in Canada either.

The NFU also raised concerns that eaters in institutional settings are not positioned to know whether the beef they are served is irradiated or not. Those who prepare the food would know – they’d see the labels on the boxes of course – but those labels won’t leave the kitchen. This is only a problem for human health or food safety if the considerable evidence indicating that irradiation of food does not pose a threat to consumers’ health is ignored. Even if there is a remote chance of human health impacts, there’s a very immediate and potentially fatal threat from fecal pathogens. This does point to a shortcoming with the labelling requirements in that in an institutional setting the labels are largely obscured from institutional eaters. This is something that should be addressed (most likely this will be in the hands of institutions themselves) in the interest of maximizing transparency for all consumers, but it is not an issue of public health or food safety. I imagine poor food handling practices at these retirement homes and schools are a far larger and far more immediate threat to the vulnerable populations that dine in those institutions than any possible threat posed by irradiation. Moreover, I suspect the majority of those institutional eaters have been consuming irradiated spices and onions for years without harm. If we are really concerned about allowing institutional eaters to make better risk management decisions, perhaps we should start posting food safety inspection scores on the doors of restaurants and institutions.

I am, however, sympathetic to the other concerns articulated by the NFU related to food safety. The NFUS are concerned that irradiation may “be used as a final control point to kill some (but not necessarily all) pathogens…that occurs when processing high volumes at high speeds without adequate inspection of lines”. I too am concerned about the possibility of irradiation becoming a food safety crutch. There are commentators who claim “we have run out of regulatory power”, and that it is a necessity to deal with ubiquitous pathogens in the context of a regulatory system that has exhausted all possible options. I couldn’t disagree more with this idea that we’ve run out of regulatory power. The XL Foods recall didn’t take place because we’re at the end of our regulatory rope; it happened because both the CFIA and XL Foods dropped the ball. There is room to improve food safety regulation, the decision is whether that is something that the government wants to do. Claims that we’ve run out of regulatory power is really a disguised claim to shunt responsibility for food safety away from government.

Further to my point, recent changes made by Walmart to reduce the presence of Salmonella and Campylobacter on their chicken have been fairly effective. There is room to improve food safety without irradiation, and Walmart has done it on its own – not in order to comply with direct government regulations. This isn’t to suggest we forbid irradiation, just that there is room to improve food safety upstream given the will to do so, and such improvements can limit how heavily we lean on irradiation as a final kill step. The NFU also point out that while irradiation is permitted in the United States, there have nevertheless been no shortage of outbreaks attributed to pathogen-contaminated beef. Were it to become a crutch it may not be the most reliable.

If Canada’s food safety system hasn’t shown itself to be so easily fallible, and if industry didn’t seem to capable of flouting their commitment to it, I might feel differently. As it stands we are clearly not at the end of the regulatory rope. When Canada’s largest beef processor fails to comply to existing food safety requirements and persistently fails to address corrective action requests from the CFIA who then does nothing to intervene, the idea of irradiation becoming a crutch doesn’t seem too far fetched.

What I do think is that irradiation should be available as a tool in a company’s food safety toolbox. If irradiation can contribute to the reduction of foodborne illness outbreaks and wasteful food recalls, then I think the benefits outweigh the costs. That said, my support is qualified. Any allowance of irradiation needs to coincide with more robust regulation, monitoring, and enforcement. It behooves regulators to demonstrate they can compel those they regulate to make improvements. Walmart has shown that companies have room to improve without relying on radiation, and regulators need to push the rest of the industry to follow suit. (For a similar sentiment, see Coral Beach’s recent article on Food Safety news)

Overall, I don’t think that irradiation poses the economic threat that the NFU assumes it will. Strawman. While I advocate for consumer transparency, I think the NFU’s concerns about the safety of institutional eaters is overblown. However, I share the NFU’s fear of a lack of effort on the part of industry and its regulators to maximize the effectiveness of existing options. Industry has demonstrated how much more can be done to improve food safety. There are a lot of unanswered questions about what irradiation might mean for the beef industry, but I don’t believe it is the threat it is being made out to be. In fact, I suspect any impact, positive or negative, will be disappointingly modest.