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Food Irradiation

Radiation Facts

  • Irradiation does not make food radioactive.
  • Food irradiation uses ionizing radiation to reduce bacteria, molds and other pests in food.
  • Irradiation breaks chemical bonds to stop bacteria and other pathogens from multiplying.

You are probably familiar with pasteurizing milk and pressure cooking canned foods as ways to kill bacteria and other pathogens. Did you know that ionizing radiation is also used to kill bacteria, molds and other pests in our food? This process is called food irradiation.

Food irradiation can help prevent foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning. Food irradiation protects people in this world—and people out of this world as well! NASA astronauts eat food that has been irradiated to avoid any chance of foodborne illness in space.

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Many red apples sit on a conveyor belt. 

About Food Irradiation

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that food irradiation helps ensure our food is safe. Some ways that food irradiation keeps our food safe are:

  • Food irradiation does not make food radioactive.
  • Food irradiation reduces or removes pathogens, such as bacteria and molds, that spoil food and cause food poisoning and other illness. For example, irradiation can kill Escherichia coli, Campylobacter and Salmonella bacteria. These bacteria make millions of people sick and send thousands of people to the hospital each year.
  • Animal feed also can contain Salmonella. Irradiation can prevent the spread of these bacteria to livestock.
  • Food irradiation slows down the aging of foods such as fruits and vegetables by delaying sprouting. Irradiating dry foods like spices and grains allows them to be stored for a long time. It also allows shipping of grains and spices over long distances.
  • Food irradiation can be used to protect agriculture from the import of invasive pests such as insects and worms. The radiation kills or sterilizes pests, preventing new bugs from infecting crops.

The image is of a green circle divided into five unequal parts, with a simple plant in the middle of the circle. It is the image that shows a food has gone through the process of food irradiation.
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

However, food irradiation cannot remove all food dangers:

  • Irradiating food does not get rid of dangerous toxins that are already in food. In some cases, the bacteria themselves are not dangerous, but they produce toxins that are. For example, Clostridium botulinum bacteria produce a toxin that causes botulism, a dangerous illness. Food irradiation can control the spread, growth, and survival of the C. botulinum bacteria, but cannot remove the toxin produced by C. botulinum.
  • Food irradiation can slow, but does not stop, fruit and vegetables from aging. Aging can lower their nutritional value, taste and flavor.
  • Irradiation can alter slightly the flavor of some foods. The change is like the way pasteurization alters the taste of milk.
  • Irradiated food does not meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's definition of organic.

How Food Irradiation Works

Currently, food irradiators use one of three kinds of radiation: gamma rays (from cobalt-60 sources), electron beams, or x-rays.

All three methods work the same way. Bulk or packaged food passes through a radiation chamber on a conveyor belt. The food does not come into contact with radioactive materials, but instead passes through a radiation beam, like a large flashlight.

The ionizing radiation sends enough energy into the bacterial or mold cells in the food to break chemical bonds. This damages the pathogens enough for them to die or no longer multiply, which reduces illness or spoilage.

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What You Can Do

Irradiating food does not make it radioactive. Members of the public are not exposed to radiation used in the irradiation of food. As a result, you do not need to do anything to protect yourself from irradiated food or the food irradiation process.

  • Follow guidance. Owners and workers in irradiation facilities should follow all OSHA radiation protection rules. These rules protect workers from exposure to ionizing radiation.

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