Health Canada is going to allow the beef industry to irradiate beef: to blast it with radiation. But it insists that such beef be clearly labeled so that “consumers wishing to purchase irradiated ground beef would easily be able to identify it on store shelves.” [i]

However there is no requirement to label genetically modified foods.  It is hard to understand why there is a requirement to label one but not the other, because they are similar in many respects. Here are the similarities:

Both Are Processes at the Molecular Level

Irradiation is a process, according to the Technical Summary[ii], that is applied to ground beef at the molecular level, the level of DNA.  The Updated Evaluation[iii] of irradiated beef states (at 5) that “The mechanism of action for microbial inactivation using ionizing radiation is understood to involve breakage of the chemical bonds in the microbe’s DNA by free radicals, which arrests microbial growth (Black and Jaczynski 2006)”.

Genetic modification is also a process, and it is applied at the molecular level.  The mechanism for action of genetic modification is understood to involve inserting genes into the DNA of an organism to create specific proteins to perform a function.

Both Are Evaluated by Health Canada

The products of irradiating beef and of genetically modifying foods both undergo an evaluation by Health Canada.  On irradiation, Health Canada indicates “In Canada, all new uses of food radiation must undergo a thorough safety evaluation to ensure that the radiation process does not negatively alter the nutritional quality or safety of the food …” (Technical Summary at 3).  Likewise, when it comes to the safety evaluation of genetically modified foods, Health Canada is to ensure it has been established “that the novel food is safe for consumption” (Food and Drug Regulations B.28.002(1)).

Both Can Create New Toxic Substances

The process of irradiation when applied to beef can create new potentially toxic substances.  The proposal to irradiate beef was first introduced in 1998, and Health Canada indicated in its 2002 initial evaluation that  “[T]he main chemical change is the formation of small amounts of radiolytic products (RPs), some of which are volatile”.[iv]  One is 2-ACB, and the Updated Evaluation states “an in vivo tumour promoter study, administering pure 2 ACBs, found an increase in tumour number and size, but not overall tumour incidence” (at 7).

The process of modifying the genes of foods can also create new potentially toxic substances.  The explanation: “Genetic engineering introduces new genes, new genetic information, into the cells of a food producing organism. Since a gene is the blueprint for a protein, that new genetic information causes the organism to produce one or more new proteins. In turn, the food produced by that genetically engineered organism will contain those new proteins. Thus, genetic engineering introduces new ingredients, new constituents into foods….These new proteins could, themselves, cause allergies or be toxic. Alternatively, they could alter the cellular metabolism of the food-producing organism in unintended and unanticipated ways, and in turn, these alterations in metabolism could cause allergens or toxins to be produced in the food.”[v]

The record shows that genetic engineering can create toxic substances.[vi] One case in point is L- tryptophan, a food supplement, which was linked to the disease called eosinophilia-myalgia  syndrome (EMS) that broke out in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  Certain white blood cells that fight infection are called eosinopholis, and the levels associated with the disease were extremely high. The molecules that were supposed to attack invaders instead attacked the body’s normal tissue, causing pain at extreme levels. Symptoms included severe swelling of legs and arms, skin rashes, and breathing difficulties. At least 80 people died, 1,500 were permanently disabled and 5,000 to 10,000 were afflicted.

The particular strain of the supplement was derived from genetically altered bacteria, and it contained new and usual contaminants, at least one of which was highly toxic at low concentrations, and the concentrations of contaminants fluctuated over time; all of which point to genetic engineering.  It has since been ascertained that one new contaminant that was created in the genetically engineered strain was “AAA”, which is fat soluble rather than water soluble. Unlike the other contaminants, it could lodge in fatty tissue and accumulate, likely resulting in triggering eosinophils and ultimately EMS.

The Public is Concerned with Both

Public concern with irradiated beef has historically been large. In fact, public concern was the reason that the initial proposal to irradiate beef was not approved by the government, although Health Canada had recommended it. The reason Health Canada cites is “The regulatory process to enable irradiation of ground beef was not completed due to the large number of questions received expressing concerns related to the safety of the food irradiation process in general.” (Technical Summary, at 3) It is well known from polls that a strong majority of Canadians want labels put on genetically modified foods.

So why will labels be put on irradiated beef, but not genetically modified foods? Perhaps the government acknowledges the public concern and risks associated with one but not the other.



[i] Department of Health. Jun 22, 2016. Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement: Regulations Amending the Food and Drug Regulations (Food Irradiation). Available from: http://www.gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p1/2016/2016-06-18/html/reg2-eng.php

[ii] Health Canada, Bureau of Chemical Safety, Food Directorate, Health Products and Food Branch.  June 17, 2016. Technical Summary – Health Canada’s Safety Evaluation of Irradiation of Fresh and Frozen Raw Ground Beef. Available from: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/irridation/tech_sum_food_irradiation_aliment_som_tech-eng.php (Technical Summary)

[iii] Health Canada, Bureau of Chemical Safety, Food Directorate, Health Products and Food Branch. June 17, 2016. Update of the Evaluation of the Safety and Efficacy of the Application of Ionizing Radiation to Fresh and Frozen Raw Ground Beef. Available by e-mail request to publications@hc-sc.gc.ca with the subject heading “HPFB BCS Update Evaluation Irradiated Ground Beef-ENG”: (Updated Evaluation)

[iv] Health Canada. 2002. Irradiation of Ground Beef: Summary of Submission Process at 7,8. Archived on Health Canada’s website

[v] Fagan, John B. Assessing the Safety and Nutritional Quality of Genetically Engineering Foods. Available from: http://www.psrast.org/jfassess.htm

[vi] Druker, Steven, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public (Clear River Press 2015) Chapter 3; Druker Steven, “How the GE Food Venture Has Become Chronically Dependent on Deception,” Independent Science News (Augusts 21, 2016). Available from:  https://www.independentsciencenews.org/health/how-the-ge-food-venture-has-been-chronically-dependent-on-deception/


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