Food Irradiation

Food irradiation is done to destroy food-borne bacteria and parasites and extend the shelf life of some foods. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that at least a few hundred deaths and up to 75 million illnesses occur each year as a result of the bacteria and other pests in food. Proper food handling and cooking are ways to minimize the chance of getting sick, but are not enough and food irradiation provides an additional level of safety.

Food irradiation facilities use radiation-emitting devices (like a large x-ray machine) that will expose the food products to a very high dose of radiation.

Food irradiation is the last step before packaged food is sent to the retail market. The food must be processed and packaged under sanitary conditions required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations. Poultry and meat are irradiated in retail packaging, eliminating many additional steps. It is prepared for store shelves, is irradiated, and is then sent to the grocery store. This process, approved by the Food and Drug Administration and USDA, reduces the number of bacteria by up to 10 million times, but still not necessarily to zero.

Food irradiation won’t prevent illnesses associated with poor handling after the irradiation has occurred. What happens to the food after irradiation still puts us at risk, which is why the food must still be stored and handled properly. Food irradiation also won’t make the food better if it is already spoiled. Food irradiation does not make food radioactive nor does it create odd or harmful chemicals in food. Irradiation is a process that does not affect the nutritional value of our food and would be very similar to cooking, freezing, canning, etc.

Over the past 60 years, food irradiation has been used in the military, in the space program, in medicine for bone marrow transplant patients, and more. Because of the significant impact that food irradiation can have on decreasing food-related illnesses, food irradiation has been endorsed by such well-respected agencies as the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, American Dietetic Association, and Surgeon General.

U.S.-Approved Irradiated Foods*

Product Date Approved
Wheat, Wheat Flour

1963

White Potatoes

1964

Spice and Vegetable Seasonings

1983

Pork

1986

Fruits and Vegetables

1986

Herbs, Spices

1986

Dehydrated Enzymes

1986

Papaya Fruit

1987

Poultry

1992

Red Meat Unfrozen

1999

Red Meat Frozen

1999

Eggs

2000

*Adapted from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site (www.usda.gov)