Food Irradiation

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.

What is Food Irradiation?

In food irradiation, food is exposed to a carefully measured amount of ionizing radiation.

This is done in a special processing room or chamber for a specified duration of time.

With food irradiation, radiant energy (electrons, gamma rays, or x-rays) breaks chemical bonds, just as in cooking, but so few bonds are broken that the food is like fresh.

How does Food Irradiation work?

Food is exposed to a carefully measured amount of intense ionizing radiation. This is done in a special processing room or chamber for a specified duration. With food irradiation, radiant energy (electrons, gamma rays, or x-rays) breaks chemical bonds, leaving the food still like-fresh, but with specific benefits, depending on treatment level.

Why irradiate foods?

Food is irradiated to make it safer and more resistant to spoilage. Irradiation destroys insects, fungi that cause food to spoil, or bacteria that cause food borne illness. Irradiation makes it possible to keep food longer and in better condition. Food irradiation is an alternative to some chemical treatments in crop storage. It provides higher quality fruit from insect quarantine areas. Food Irradiation is not a cure-all for all food problems. Proper handling and storage by the food industry and the consumer are still important.

How do irradiated products taste?

Most irradiated food tastes the same as non-irradiated.

Flavor changes depend on the type of food being irradiated, the irradiation dose, and the temperature during treatment.

Many fruits and vegetables are unchanged by low dose irradiation. Irradiation can substitute for insect quarantine treatments that damage fruit quality, so irradiated fruit may taste better. Dried fruit softens slightly and is easier to rehydrate.

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.

Are Irradiated Foods in U.S. Supermarkets Now?

Irradiation is used to sterilize household products like Band-Aids, cotton balls, contact lens solution, baby pacifiers and many packaging items, sterilize medical products such as surgical gloves, destroy bacteria in cosmetics, make non-stick cookware coatings, purify wool, perform security checks on hand luggage at airports and make tires more durable.

Is This Technology Being Used in Other Countries?

Food irradiation has been approved in 41 countries for more than 30 products. Independent scientific committees in Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada and the World Health Organization have endorsed food irradiation.

There are more than 150 irradiation facilities in over 40 countries. An estimated 55 facilities worldwide use food irradiation and related food irradiation research, according to a 1989 Library of Congress Report.

Is Irradiated Food Safe?

Irradiated food can safely be consumed by anyone. In fact, irradiated poultry, meat and seafood (where approved) are recommended because of greater safety.

How is Safety Tested?

Safety testing of irradiated foods has taken place since the early 1950's. Irradiated foods have been fed to several species of animals, some up to 40 generations, and people have eaten irradiated foods as part of their total diet. Additionally irradiated foods have been evaluated chemically. Studies have consistently shown no increase in cancer, birth defects or any other negative effect.