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Irradiation Fact Sheet Food Center

What is Food Irradiation?

Food irradiation is a technology, like heating, that can destroy harmful bacteria in raw foods by using ionizing energy. An intense pulse of energy is emitted, either from a gamma radiation source like Cobalt 60 or from an electrical source like an electron beam accelerator which does not involve a radiation source. The energy penetrates the food and destroys any bacteria. Irradiation complements, but does not replace, the need for proper food preparation, storage, and distribution practices by producers, processors, and consumers.


* The Radura is the international

symbol for irradiation.

Is Irradiated Food Safe to Eat?

Food cannot be irradiated unless the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves it. The FDA has evaluated irradiation safety for 40 years and found the process safe and effective for many foods. Health experts also say that in addition to reducing E. coli O157:H7 contamination, irradiation can help control the potentially harmful bacteria Salmonella and Campylobacter, two chief causes of foodborne illness.

Studies show irradiation does not make food radioactive, compromise nutritional quality, or noticeably change the taste, texture, or appearance of food, as long as it is applied properly to a suitable product. It is important to note that irradiation cannot be used with all foods. For example, it causes undesirable flavor changes in dairy products and it causes tissue softening in some fruits, such as peaches and nectarines.

How Will I Know if Food Has Been Irradiated?

As part of its approval, FDA requires that irradiated foods include labeling with either the statement "treated with radiation" or "treated by irradiation," along with the Radura *, the international symbol for irradiation. Irradiation labeling requirements apply only to foods sold in stores. For example, irradiated spices or fresh strawberries should be labeled. Irradiation labeling does not apply to restaurant foods.

Four Main Purposes of Food Irradiation

Preservation - Irradiation can be used to destroy or inactivate organisms that cause spoilage and decomposition, thereby extending the shelf life of foods.

Sterilization - Foods that are sterilized by irradiation can be stored for years without refrigeration. Sterilized food is useful in hospitals for patients with severely impaired immune systems, such as AIDS patients or people undergoing chemotherapy. Irradiated foods can also be used by the military and for space flights.

Control Sprouting, Ripening, and Insect Damage - Irradiation offers an alternative to chemicals for use with potatoes, tropical and citrus fruits, grains, spices, and seasonings. However, since no residue is left in the food, irradiation does not protect against reinfestation as insect sprays and fumigants do.

Control Foodborne Illness - Irradiation can be used to effectively destroy pathogens that cause foodborne illness, such as Salmonella.

Food Irradiation History

1920s: French scientists discover that irradiation preserves foods.

1963: Irradiation is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to control insects in wheat and wheat powder. Although irradiation was not used in the United States at this time, 400,000 tons of wheat per year was irradiated in the Ukraine to kill insects.

1964: This is the first time irradiation was used in the United States. The FDA approves irradiation to extend the shelf life of white potatoes.

1970s: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) adopts irradiation to sterilize meat for astronauts to eat in space. Irradiation is still used by NASA today.

1997: Red meat is approved for irradiation by the FDA, making it the most recent food to be approved. Irradiation is used to control pathogens, such as E. coli, Salmonella species, parasites, and to extend the shelf life of meat, including beef, veal, lamb, and pork.

2000: The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) approves the irradiation of beef.