Ten Most Commonly Asked Questions About Food Irradiation
In September 1992, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service approved
guidlines for use of irradiation in raw, packaged poultry. The FSIS
decision followed a May 1990 FDA rule, which concluded that poultry
irradiation at the absorbed dose of 3 kiloGray does not pose a safety
hazard to consumers and is effective in controlling foodborne illness.
Following are commonly asked questions and answers about food
1. Why is food irradiated?
Food is irradiated to make it safer and more resistant to spoilage.
Irradiation detroys insects, fungi or bacteria that cause human disease or
cause food to spoil. Irradiation makes it possible to keep food longer and
in better condition.
Because irradiation destroys disease causing bacteria, the process has
been used by hospitals to sterilize food for immunocompromised
2. Are irradiated foods still nutritious?
Yes, irradiated foods are wholesome and nutritious. In fact, even at the
higher doses of irradiation used to extend shelf-life or control harmful
bacteria, nutritional losses are less than, or about the same as cooking
and freezing. At lower doses, nutrient losses are either not measurable
or insignificant. The fact is, all forms of food processing -- cooking,
freezing, canning, and even storing foods -- lower the amounts of some
Irradiation produces virtually no heat within food, and most people cannot
detect any changes in flavor or texture.
3. Does irradiation make food radioactive?
No. The energy used in food irradiation is not strong enough to cause food
to become radioactive. Irradiation involves passing food through an
irradiation field, but the food never touches a radioactive substance.
During irradiation, energy passes through food much like a ray of light
passes through a window. This energy destroys most of the bacteria that
can cause disease, yet allows food to retain its high quality.
Since the energy involved in irradiation is not strong enough to change
the atoms of the food, and since the food never actually touches the
radioactive source, the food cannot become radioactive.
4. Does eating irradiated food present health risks?
No. Scientists from the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of
Agriculture, U.S. Department of Energy, as well as from many universities
within the United States reviewed several hundred studies on the effects
of food irradiation before reaching conclusions about its safety.
Independant scientific committees in Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom,
Canada and the World Health Organization have also endoresed food
irradiation. Food irradiation has been approved in 37 countries for more
than 40 products.
5. Does irradiation destroy all bacteria, resulting in a sterile
No. Irradiation pasteurizes food by using energy, just as milk is
pasteurized using heat. At the level used, most harmful bacteria
will be destroyed. Afterwards, surviving bacteria could start to multiply
if the food were mishandled; for example, stored at an improper
temperature. The level of irradiation used also does not kill certain
spoilage organisms. This is for the protection of consumers.
Spoilage bacteria will multiply and alert consumbers not to use a product
which has been improperly handled.
As with any food, consumers must take appropriate precautions, such
as refrigeration and proper handling and cooking, to make sure that
potentiall harmful organisms do not present a problem.
6. Does irradiation cause chemical changes in food, perhaps producting
substances which are not present in non-irradiated foods?
Any kind of processing causes changes in food. Heat produces chemicals
that could be called "thermolytic products", while irradiation produces
similar chemicals called "radiolytic products". Radiolytic products are
so minor they are measured in parts ber billion and can only be
detected with sensitive laboratory equipment. Thermolytic products, on
the other hand, can be smelled, tasted, and seen.
"Free Radicals" are atoms or molecules that are unstable and very
reactive. They can be formed during irradiation, and also by toasting,
frying, freeze-drying, but they quickly change into other, more stabile
Despite extensive research, there is no evidence that irradiated foods
present any increased risk of exposure to harmful substances over
conventionally processed foods.
7. Will my risk of radiation exposure increase significantly if I live
next to an irradiation processing plant?
No. In fact you receive more radiation exposure during a transcontinental
airline flight. Irradiation facilities must include many safety features
to prevent both environmental and worker exposure. A food irradiation
plant is not a nuclear reactor. There is no chance of meltdown. The use
and tranportation of radioactive materials -- including the equipment and
the facilities in which they are used -- is closely monitered by the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission, state agencies, and the Department of
8. For what other purposes is irradiation technology now used in the
Irradiation is used for sterilizing medical products such as surgical
gloves, destroying bacteria in cosmetics, making nonstick cookware
coatings, purifying wool, performaing security checks on hand luggage at
airports, and making tires more durable.
9. Are irradiated foods on the U.S. market now?
Until recently only bulk dried spices were irradiated in the United
States. Since January 1992 irradiated produce has begun to appear in some
American supermarkets. At least a dozen different irradiated foods are
10. How can irradiated foods be identified in the market?
By law all irradiated foods must be by labeled with the international
symbol for irradiation, simple green petals (representing the food) in a
broken circle (representing the rays from the energy source). This
symbols must be accompanied by the words, "Treated by Irradiation" or
"Treated with Radiation".
call the Meat and Poultry Hotline,
In the Washington, D.C. area,
United States Department of Agriculture