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By Shannon Lambie

Last week at Loutet Farm, ‘Friends with Fed Up’ spent the day teaching the primary school children from Brooksbank Elementary about the exciting world of garlic.  We learned how it grows, yummy ways to eat it, and how to plant it! Everyone had a chance to get their hands dirty by planting a clove (pointy end up!)  and now in ten months time we will see the results.

Great fun was had by all, and everyone left with a little more knowledge than they had before, and I learned something that piqued my interest in particular.

When I asked Farmer Gavin and Farmer Emily if I could just use any old clove from a regular garlic bulb for planting, they responded, “no probably not. Most of the ordinary non organic grocery store bulbs have been irradiated, and won’t sprout”.

Hmm… I knew I had heard of irradiation, the odd rumour floating around about irradiated potatoes or bananas, but in all honesty, I didn’t really know what irradiation was, how it works, or what it does.

It turns out I’m not alone.

A survey conducted in April 2012 by The Angus Reid Public Opinion for the Consumers Association of Canada found that in its sample of 1,006 Canadians, 57% had never even heard of the food irradiation process.  So what exactly is food irradiation?

Health Canada explains food irradiation as, “the process of exposing food to a controlled amount of energy called ‘ionizing radiation’. There are three different types of radiation allowed: Gamma rays, X-rays and electron beam radiation”. This process acts by damaging the food product’s DNA beyond its ability to repair.  Therefore, organisms can no longer successfully continue the process of cell division, and the organism ceases all processes related to maturation or reproduction.

Three main rationales are given by Health Canada for food irradiation:

To prevent food poisoning: by reducing the level of harmful bacteria such as E.coli or Salmonella;

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; and

To increase shelf life: by slowing the ripening or sprouting in fresh fruits and vegetables, thereby allowing for longer shelf life.

A brief perusal of the internet suggests that many are uncomfortable with the concept of irradiating food due to its association with the nuclear industry, and the potential for the chemical changes to be different than simply heating up the food to kill organisms.

But what are the real risks associated with irradiating food? Health Canada insists that the risks are nil, but a closer inspection of the process begs the question if the lengthy/costly process is worth the negligible benefits.

— Irradiating food is capital and technologically intensive. It requires extensive infrastructure and further industrializes the food processing system.

— Irradiating food reduces nutrient content. The UIC School of Public Health reports that irradiating food reduces the content of several key nutrients such as Vitamin E (~15-30 %); Thiamin (~10-25%); Vitamin C (5-15%); Riboflavin (~7-10%); Pyridoxine (~10-20%); and Vitamin B12 (~15-20%).  Although Health Canada argues that these reductions are consistent with the canning preservation technique,  many produce items which are irradiated would not traditionally have been preserved or canned, and would have been eaten fresh, such as garlic.

— The same UIC School of Public Health Report suggests that food irradiation creates radiolytic products with unknown short term or long term safety effects.

— The final questionable attribute of food irradiation is the fact that even after food has been irradiated, there is still a risk that bacterium or pathogens exist. Given that a complete irradiation of the food would kill the food product completely (i.e. destroy taste and texture) the food product is only irradiated to about 90-95%. Therefore, there still exists a chance for food borne illness, the exact problem which food irradiation is supposed to ‘solve’. Health Canada recommends that irradiated foods should still be treated with the same precautions that non irradiated foods are.

The need to irradiate food has risen as a result of our transnational food system. Food needs to be irradiated so that it can last long enough to make the time and energy intensive journey from farm to market, and in the case of most super market garlic, that journey requires a trip across the pacific from China to Vancouver.

Supporting locally grown or organic agriculture would eliminate the need to irradiate produce.

Food products which are currently irradiated in Canada include: onions, potatoes, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, and whole or ground spices and dehydrated seasonings. Four other food items are up for consideration: mangoes, poultry, shrimp and prawns, and ground beef.

But what about food irradiated in other countries and shipped to Canada? Health Canada explains that food irradiation has been legalized in at least 39 other countries, with a combined total of more than 40 different food products ranging from produce, to meat, to spices, to cereals, and even eggs.

Foods irradiated in Canada and the United States should carry this irradiation symbol.

Foods from further abroad may not bear this symbol though.

The only way to really ensure that you are not eating irradiated food is to purchase organic (both USDA certified organic and organics in Canada do not allow the use of irradiation) or local farmer market produce.

Happy Halloween!