Watching Iotron Industries' irradiation technology in action brings back memories of Star Trek episodes from the 1960s. Here at the company's flagship facility in Port Coquitlam, B.C., trays of products roll along an hourglass conveyor system into an electron beam accelerator, where they are swept from all sides by a series of rapid-fire electrons to kill pathogens. A few minutes later, they roll out sterilized.
In our bacteria-wary world, the technology represents a huge growth opportunity for Iotron. E. coli and listeria cases are on the rise across North America, including the largest beef recall in Canadian history last fall. After more than 20 years of sterilizing medical products and bonding metals for the military, Iotron is planning to use its proprietary electron beam accelerator to capitalize on the heightened awareness of food safety. In doing so, it must also explain to skeptics that, while radiation energy is used in the process, irradiated foods do not become radioactive.
Iotron's irradiation technology was first developed by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in Ottawa. The founder and current chairman of Iotron, Lloyd Scott, bought the irradiation unit from AECL 22 years ago and moved it to B.C., after selling his construction business in his late 50s. Scott began using the technology to sterilize medical products and enhance the colour of gemstones, which was a big market at the time. When Ottawa sold off the AECL program in 2001, Iotron purchased the technology and patents outright, betting on a boost in irradiation uses. Scott eventually sold other businesses he had purchased over the years, including a winery in California, to keep Iotron alive.
"Once you see what an interesting business this is, you don't want to get out," says Scott, who, at age 80, still goes to work each day. Two years ago, he convinced his son-in-law, Tino Pereira, a 28-year veteran of the aluminum industry, to join the privately held company as president and CEO, a move that will help Scott keep his investment in the family.
Iotron recently opened a $15-million, 54,000-square-foot facility in Indiana to serve the agricultural hub of the United States, where foods such as meats and lettuce are approved for irradiation. The number of foods approved for irradiation and sale in Canada is much smaller, and includes potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, spices and dehydrated seasonings. It's a list that Iotron wants to expand to include meats, for starters.
"We would love to have the opportunity in Canada to use this tool [for food]," says Pereira. "Food is one of those great opportunities that we need to focus on.…To me, it's the ultimate big game-changer." Today, the only food that Iotron treats at its B.C. facility is animal feed; it also sterilizes medical equipment and beehives, and modifies a range of materials such as wood and plastics.
Promoting itself as a "risk mitigation" business, the firm is working with the Canadian Cattlemen's Association and food industry experts to persuade Health Canada to approve irradiation of meat and other foods, particularly now that public attitudes appear to have shifted. Ten years ago, a Health Canada scientific review of irradiated ground beef, chicken, mangoes, shrimps and prawns concluded that the process was safe. However, the government didn't move forward with regulations, citing "significant" public concerns related to irradiation. But in a 2012 Angus Reid opinion poll, commissioned by the Consumers' Association of Canada, 66 per cent of those who were surveyed said they supported irradiation of such food items as salad greens, chicken, hamburger or deli meats, while only 34 per cent were opposed.
"The winds are changing," says Dr. Rick Holley, a food safety expert and professor at the University of Manitoba. "Food safety issues are very high on the minds of consumers, higher than they might have been 15 to 20 years ago. The recent spate and continuing occurrences of illnesses associated with E. coli in meat and produce, which are increasing, are very clearly showing to the public at large that what we are doing now is inadequate. We need an alternative."
Still, Iotron knows that it has work to do to better educate the public on food irradiation. "We have to respect the consumers' concerns," says Pereira. "The term irradiation obviously scares some people, so we have to do a better job of differentiating ourselves from some of the negatives."