food Program

Food Irradiation

Hawaiian papaya: one of many irradiated foods

Irradiation is a process in which food is exposed to high doses of radiation in the form of gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams. Irradiation can kill bacteria in food, both good and bad, but has no effect on the infectious agent that causes mad cow disease, or on viruses,  Fsuch as those that cause hepatitis.

Effects of food irradiation

The long-term health consequences of eating irradiated food are still unknown. Irradiation creates a complex series of reactions that alter the molecular structure of food and create known carcinogens,  Fincluding benzene, and other toxic chemicals, including toluene.  FIn addition, byproducts of irradiation, called 2-ACBs, which do not occur naturally in any food, have been linked to tumor growth in rats  Fand genetic damage in human cells.  FAnimals fed irradiated foods have died prematurely and suffered mutations, stillbirths, organ damage and nutritional deficiencies.  F

Irradiation can also change the flavor, odor, texture, color and nutritional content of food.  FFor example, yolks of irradiated eggs are more watery and have less color and brightness than non-irradiated eggs.  FIrradiation also destroys the niacin and vitamins in eggs,  including up to 24 percent of vitamin A, at just one-third the radiation level approved by the FDA.  F

Irradiation is used to create a false sense of security about food safety.  It is promoted as a solution to the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions on factory farms  G that make animals susceptible to disease, and to the filthy conditions in slaughterhouses that contaminate meat with bacteria. However, since irradiation may not eliminate all bacteria from foods, and since foods can be contaminated or re-contaminated after having been irradiated, the process does not totally eliminate the possibility of foodborne illness. That is why the USDA recommends the same food-handling practices for irradiated foods as for non-irradiated foods.  F

How is food irradiation different from microwaving?

Food is irradiated to extend its shelf life and kill pests like fruit flies. It uses gamma rays with short wavelengths and high frequencies that penetrate food so rapidly that little or no heat is produced. Microwaving, which uses longer wavelengths, causes foods to heat rapidly.  F

What foods are irradiated?

Currently, the US Food and Drug Administration has approved irradiation of foods including meat and poultry, shell eggs, fruits and vegetables, herbs, spices and flour. However, only a few of these approved foods are actually produced commercially; currently, irradiated foods are limited to small amounts of ground beef, spices, and some imported fruit such as papayas. Irradiated foods sold in grocery stores are required to be labeled.


Did you know?

  • In a study conducted by Consumer Reports, professional taste testers noticed that most samples of cooked irradiated beef and chicken had "a slight but distinct off-taste and smell" similar to that of singed hair.  F
  • In 2007 the FDA proposed a rule, still pending approval, which would exempt some irradiated foods from labeling requirements. The proposed rule uses spices as an example of a food that the FDA “tentatively believes” could be irradiated without “the potential to be detrimental to the consumer.” In other cases manufacturers would be allowed to label foods “pasteurized” that are, in fact, irradiated.

What you can do

  • Avoid buying irradiated foods, which must be labeled with the radura symbol, shown above. The word radura is a derivative of "radurization," which originates from the words "radiation" and the Latin stem of "durus," meaning "lasting."
  • Tell your local school board officials that irradiated foods should not be served in schools.
  • Ask restaurant and grocery store managers not to sell irradiated foods.

For more information

Reports and articles