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Food Irradiation

Food Irradiation

Irradiation methods

Food irradiation sparks debate


Food irradiation refers to a process where food is exposed to a type of radiation called ionizing radiation. The high-energy of the radiation, which can come from a radioactive or a non-radioactive source, breaks apart the genetic material of microorganisms that are on the surface of the food. Microorganisms and other surface contaminants, including insects, are killed as a result.

This scrutiny of food irradiation, combined with the public controversy surrounding the exposure of foods to radioactivity, has meant that the effects of irradiation on foods have been extensively studied. The consensus from these studies is that radioactive sterilization of food does not cause the food itself to become radioactive, nor does the irradiation appreciably alter the nutritional characteristics of the food.

Despite the ongoing debate over food irradiation, the practice is not new. Patents were issued in the United States and Britain for food irradiation in the first decade of the twentieth century. Scientists demonstrated in 1947 that meat and other foods could be sterilized by ionizing radiation. The military took a great interest in this development, seeing it as a way of supplying field troops with food. Military experiments

on the irradiation of fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products, and various meats began in the U.S. in the 1950s.

In 1958, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration became the official government agency concerned with the evaluation and approval of irradiated foods. Congress gave the FDA authority over the food irradiation process.

The manned space program undertaken by the United States beginning in the 1960s gave a great boost to food irradiation technology. Astronauts have always eaten irradiated foods. In addition, in the 1960s, the United Nations established a Joint Expert Committee on Food Irradiation. The committee concluded in 1980 that the irradiation of foods posed no unique nutritional or microbiological problems.

Irradiation methods

Food irradiation can be accomplished in three different ways, using three different types of rays: gamma rays, electron beams, and x rays. Gamma rays are given off by the radioactive elements cobalt and cesium. Gamma rays are powerful, and can penetrate through several feet of material. As such, precautions against technician exposure to the radiation are necessary, and a special irradiation chamber is needed.

Electron beams are not as powerful as gamma rays. They can penetrate to depths of a few centimeters. Nonetheless, they are excellent for the sterilization of surfaces. Electron beam sterilization of medical and dental equipment has been routine for decades. Additionally, electron beams are not radioactive.

X-ray irradiation of food was introduced in the mid1990s. X rays are a blend of the other two techniques, in that x rays are as powerful and penetrating as gamma rays. But, like electrons, x rays are not radioactive.

Foods such as solid meat and poultry, and fresh produce are well suited to irradiation sterilization. Not all foods, however, are as suited to the irradiation process. Eggs, milk, and shellfish, for example, should be treated by another process to best preserve their quality. Food irradiation alters the taste or appearance of some varieties of grapes, lemons, and nectarines. Irradiation is no substitute for proper cooking and storage. Even irradiated food can become contaminated if it is improperly cooked or stored.

Food irradiation sparks debate

Like biotechnology, food irradiation has sparked fierce public debate. Some scientists are ardent supporters while other public groups are detractors of


Carcinogen Any substance capable of causing cancer by mutating the cells DNA.

Free radicals Unstable molecules containing an odd number of electrons and, therefore, seeking an electron from another molecule.

Gamma ray A highly penetrating type of radiant energy that has the power to ionize.

Ion An atom or molecule which has acquired electrical charge by either losing electrons (positively charged ion) or gaining electrons (negatively charged ion). The process of changing a substance into ions is known as ionization.

Radioisotope A type of atom or isotope, such as strontium-90, that exhibits radioactivity.

Radiolytic Products or substances formed during the radiation process.

food irradiation. Supporters of food irradiation contend that its widespread use has the potential to reduce death and illness internationally due to food-borne microorganisms such as salmonella in poultry and trichinosis in pork.

Salmonella causes four million people to become ill and results in 1,000 deaths annually in the United States alone. Contamination of food products with a bacterium called Escherichia coli 0157 causes over 20,000 illnesses and 500 deaths a year. Internationally, as much as 30% of the worlds food supply cannot be used each year because it is either spoiled or consumed by insects. Globally, there are an estimated 24,000120,000 cases of Salmonella food poisoning and 4,9009,800 cases of E. coli 0157:H7 food poisoning each year. Treatment of such food-borne illnesses and lost productivity costs an estimated $56 billion each year.

Despite the weight of evidence and the need for a more effective food treatment strategy, advocates of food irradiation face public opposition to irradiation. Some consumers and groups are concerned about the unforeseen reactions in food caused by the presence of high-energy particles. Others do not want the food they eat to have been exposed to radioactive substances. Ultimately, the benefits of food irradiation will be weighed against the publics wariness concerning radiation and the food supply.

As public awareness and understanding of irradiation continues, the acceptance of irradiation as a food protection strategy could prevail. The weight of evidence supports the technique. As of 2006, food irradiation is endorsed by the United States Food Protection Agency, the American Medical Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Association. Over 40 countries sterilize food by irradiation. In the United States, food packaging and foods, including strawberries and other fruits, are irradiated and sold.



Molins, R.A. Food Irradiation: Principles and Applications. New York: Wiley-Interscience, 2001.

Sommers, Christopher and Xuetong Fan. Food Irradiation Research and Technology. Boston: Blackwell Publishing Professional, 2006.


Knopper, Melissa. Zap! The growing controversy over food irradiation. E (Magazine/Journal). 13 (2002): 40-42.

Salvage, Bryan. Irradiation gains distribution, momentum and respect. The National Provisioner. 217 (2003): 61-68.

Brian Hoyle

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Food Irradiation

Food irradiation

The treatment of food with ionizing radiation has been in practice for nearly a century since the first irradiation process patents were filed in 1905. Regular use of the technology in food processing started in 1963 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of irradiated wheat and wheat flour. Today irradiation treatment is used on a wide variety of food products and is regulated in the United States by the FDA under a Department of Health and Human Services regulation.

Irradiation of food has three main applications: extension of shelf life, elimination of insects, and the destruction of bacteria and other pathogens that cause foodborne illness. This final goal may have the most far-reaching implications for Americans; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that 76 million Americans get sick, and 5,000 die each year from illnesses caused by foodborne microorganisms , such as E. coli, Salmonella, the botulism toxin, and other pathogens responsible for food poisoning .

Irradiation technology involves exposing food to ionizing radiation. The radiation is generated from gamma rays emitted by cobalt-60 or cesium-137, or from x rays or electron beams. The amount of radiation absorbed during irradiation processing is measured in units called RADs (radiant energy absorbed). One hundred RADs is equivalent to one Gray (Gy). Depending on the food product being irradiated, treatment can range from 0.05 to 30 kGy. A dosimeter, or film badge, verifies the kGy dose. The ionizing radiation displaces electrons in the food, which slows cell division and kills bacteria and pests.

The irradiation process itself is relatively simple. Food is packed in totes or containers, which are typically placed on a conveyer belt. Beef and other foods that require refrigeration are loaded into insulated containers prior to treatment. The belt transports the food bins through a lead-lined irradiation cell or chamber, where they are exposed to the ionizing radiation that kills the microorganisms. Several trips through the chamber may be required for full irradiation. The length of the treatment depends upon the food being processed and the technology used, but each rotation takes only a few minutes.

The FDA has approved the use of irradiation for wheat and wheat powder, spices, enzyme preparations, vegetables, pork, fruits, poultry, beef, lamb, and goat meat. In 2000, the FDA also approved the use of irradiation to control salmonella in fresh eggs.

Labeling guidelines introduced by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international food standards organization sponsored jointly by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), requires that all irradiated food products and ingredients be clearly labeled as such for consumers. Codex also created the radura, a voluntary international symbol that represents irradiation. In the United States, the food irradiation process is regulated jointly by FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Facilities using radioactive sources such as cobalt-60 are also regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC. The FDA regulates irradiation sources, levels, food types and packaging, as well as required recordkeeping and labeling. Records must be maintained and made available to FDA for one year beyond the shelf-life of the irradiated food to a maximum of three years. They must describe all aspects of the treatment and foods that have been irradiated must be denoted with the radura symbol and by the statement "Treated with radiation" or "Treated by irradiation". As of 2002, food irradiation is allowed in some 50 countries and is endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO), and many other organizations.

New legislation entitled the "Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002" (the Farm Bill) passed in May 2002 may soften the food irradiation standards. The Farm Bill calls for the Secretary of Health and Human Services and FDA to implement a new regulatory program for irradiated foods. The program will allow the food industry to instead label irradiated food as "pasteurized" as long as they meet appropriate food safety standards. As of the writing of this entry, these new guidelines had not been implemented.

Food that has been treated with ionizing energy typically looks and tastes the same as non-irradiated food. Just like a suitcase going through an airport x-ray machine, irradiated food does not come into direct contact with a radiation source and is not radioactive. However, depending on the strength and duration of the irradiation process, some slight changes in appearance and taste have been reported in some foods after treatment. Some of the flavor changes may be attributed to the generation of substances known as radiolytic products in irradiated foods.

When food products are irradiated the energy displaces electrons in the food and forms compounds called free radicals. The free radicals react with other molecules to form new stable compounds, termed radiolytic products. Benzene , formaldehyde, and hydrogen peroxide are just a few of the radiolytic products that may form during the irradiation process. These substances are only present in minute amounts, however, and the FDA reports that 90% of all radiolytic products from irradiation are also found naturally in food.

The chemical change that creates radiolytic products also occurs in other food processing methods, such as canning or cooking. However, about 10% of the radiolytic products found in irradiated food are unique to the irradiation process and little is known about the effects that they may have on human health. It should be noted, however, that the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, and a host of other professional healthcare organizations endorse the use of irradiation as a food safety measure.

Treating fruit and vegetables with irradiation can also eliminate the need for chemical fumigation after harvesting. Produce shelf life is extended by the reduction and elimination of organisms that cause spoilage. It also slows cell division, thus delaying the ripening process, and in some types of produce irradiation extends the shelf life for up to a week. Advocates of irradiation claim that it is a safe alternative to the use of fumigants, several of which have been banned in the United States.

Nevertheless, irradiation removes some of the nutrients from foods, particularly vitamins A, C, E, and the B-Complex vitamins. Whether the extent of this nutrient loss is significant enough to be harmful is debatable. Advocates of irradiation say the loss is insignificant, and standard methods of cooking can destroy these same vitamins. However, research suggests that cooking an irradiated food may further increase the loss of nutrients.

Critics of irradiation also question the long-term safety of consumption of irradiated food and their associated radiolytic products. They charge that the technology does nothing to address the unsanitary food processing practices and inadequate inspection programs that breed foodborne pathogens.

Even if irradiation is 100% safe and beneficial there are numerous environmental concerns. Many opponents of irradiation cite the proliferation of radioactive material and the environmental hazards. The mining and on-site processing of radioactive materials are devastating to regional ecosystems. There are also safety hazards associated with the transportation of radioactive material, production of isotopes, and disposal.

[Paula Ford-Martin and Debra Glidden ]



Molins, Ricardo A. Food Irradiation: Principles and Applications. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2001.

Stuart, Thorne, ed. Food Irradiation (Elsevier Applied Food Science Series). New York: Elsevier, 1992.


Ennen, Steve. "Irradiation Plant Gets USDA Approval." Food Processing (March 2001): 902.

Louria, Donald. "Food Irradiation: Unresolved Issues." Clinical Infectious Diseases 33 (August 2001): 37880.

Steele, J. H. "Food Irradiation: A Public Health Challenge for the 21st Century." Clinical Infectious Diseases 33 (August 2001): 3767.

U.S. General Accounting Office. "Food Irradiation: Available Research Indicates That Benefits Outweigh Risks." GAO Report to Congressional Requesters. GAO/RCED-00-217 (August 2000).


U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service. Irradiation of Meat and Poultry Products. [cited July 2002]. <>.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Irradiation of Meat Food Products; Final Rule." Federal Register 64, no. 246 (December 23, 1999): 7215066.


The Food Irradiation Website, <>

National Food Processors Association, 1350 I Street, NW Suite 300, Washington, DC USA 20005 (202) 639-5900, Fax: (202) 639-5932, Email:, <>

Public Citizen, Critical Mass Energy & Environmental Program, 1600 20th St. NW, Washington, DC USA 20009 (202) 588-1000, Email:, <>

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