Food Irradiation Questions & Answers

Food Irradiation Facts

Food irradiation has been identified as a safe technology with numerous advantages for the consumer and the agricultural industry.

Irradiation can extend the shelf life of many perishable foods, increase the quality of fruits grown in areas that require insect quarantine measures. The most important advantage is the destruction of microorganisms which could otherwise lead to illness or death.

These web pages provide science-based information on this technology and links to other sources of information, both those that support and oppose the use of irradiation.

What's New in Food Irradiation

Three Electron Beam facilities under construction.

An irradiation facility using e-beam technology (see How Irradiation Works) in Sioux City Iowa has been treating frozen beef since May of 2000. 

An X-ray facility on the big island of Hawaii treats high quality papaya and other tropical fruit for insect disinfestation prior to shipment to the mainland.

Why should I care about irradiated food?

  • Irradiation improves food saftey and quality. 
    Even though the food supply has achieved a high level of safety, hazards exist. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths occur each year due to foodborne illness. Although all are at risk, children, people over age 55, diabetics, and those whose immunity is compromised are especially vulnerable.
  • Irradiation provides protection that is unavailable by any other means against foodborne illness. 

What Foods Can Be Irradiated?

The Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation of meat products for controlling disease-causing micro-organisms on December 3, 1997. The approval applies to fresh and frozen red meats such as beef, lamb and pork. USDA approved irradiation in December, 1999.

Who Opposes Food Irradiation and Why?

Two groups are known to oppose food irradiation, Food and Water Inc, located in Vermonth and Public Citizen, located in Washington D.C.

Opponents claim that irradiation produces unique compounds and specifically cite benzene and formaldehyde as hazardous by-products of the irradiation process.

Myths about Food Irradiation

Irradiation offers health and convenience benefits for the public; however misconceptions about the process and its impact on people and the environment are sometimes presented. 

Myth: Irradiation would not be necessary if food production and processing facilities were cleaner.

Consumer Acceptance of Food Irradiation

Consumer attitude and marketing studies show that, given information about irradiation, half or more will choose irradiated foods. A minority object to irradiation and will never select it.

In a 1995-96 study, after seeing a 10 minute video describing irradiation, interest in buying irradiated foods among California and Indiana consumers increased fron 57% to 82%.


History of Food Irradiation

Research on food irradiation dates back to the turn of the century. The first U.S. and British patents were issued for use of ionizing radiation to kill bacteria in foods in 1905. Food irradiation gained significant momentum in 1947 when researchers found that meat and other foods could be sterillized by high energy and the process was seen to have potential to preserve food for military troops in the field. To establish the safety and effectiveness of the irradiation process, the U.S.