Food Safety, Preparation and Storage Tips
Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, the University of Arizona

Food Irradiation

Food irradiation is a process of passing radiation through food to prevent illness from food borne bacteria. The process damages the microorganisms genetic material so that they can no longer survive or multiply in food. Irradiation does not make food radioactive and does not increase human exposure to radiation. The irradiation of fresh fruit for example, greatly reduces spoilage, thus reducing the cost to the consumer.

Currently the following foods can be irradiated:

wheat and wheat powder - to disinfest insects

white potatoes - to extend shelf life

spices and dry vegetable seasonings - to decontaminate/disinfect insects

dry or dehydrated enzymes preparations - to control insects and microorganisms

pork - to control Trichinella worms

fresh fruit - to delay maturity

poultry - to control illness-causing microorganisms.

In fact, widespread use of irradiation in the poultry industry would be an effective weapon against food-borne illness. It estimated that 60% of the poultry sold in the United States is contaminated with Salmonella or Campylobacter organisms. However, the poultry industry is quite sensitive to opposition of food irradiation.

Public reaction to food irradiation is much the same as earlier apprehension about microwave ovens. Much opposition stems from fears associated with nuclear activity or the production of nuclear weapons. Some critics think that the process of irradiation is a means to dispose of nuclear waste. Others fear that irradiation may produce substances not present in non-irradiated foods. Once accepted, there will be a demand for irradiated foods spurred by a desire for safer food. But until greater consumer acceptance prevails, food irradiation will not be widely used in the food processing industry.

The Food and Drug Administration sets the limits of the doses of irradiation permitted in foods. Irradiated foods are required to be labeled with a logo and the words "Treated with Radiation" or "Treated by Irradiation." The international irradiation logo consists of a solid circle, representing an energy source, above two petals, which represent the food. Five breaks in the outer circle depict rays for the energy source.

Irradiation, however, can never be a substitute for safe food handling practices in the home. Remember, food can easily become re-contaminated if not handled properly.

Resources:

  • Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 1996. Position paper: Food Irradiation. Vol 6. No. 1 pp. 69-72.
  • Dairy, Food and Environmental Sanitarian, in press1998. Christine M Bruhn. Food Irradiation: Will Consumers Make the Choice?
  • Food Technology. 1998. Scientific Status Summary, Irradiation of Food. Vol. 52, No.1, pp. 56-62.
  • IAEA/FAO/World Health Organization, Facts about Food Irradiation.

Material written by Mary Abgrall and Scottie Misner, February 1998.
Part of Food Safety Tips, College of Agriculture, The University of Arizona
Document located at http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/health/foodsafety/az1080.html
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