Food irradiation

Food irradiation is the process of exposing food and food packaging to ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation, such as from gamma rays, x-rays, or electron beams, is energy that can be transmitted without direct contact to the source of the energy (radiation) capable of freeing electrons from their atomic bonds (ionization) in the targeted food.[1][2] The radiation can be emitted by a radioactive substance or generated electrically. This treatment is used to improve food safety by extending product shelf-life (preservation), reducing the risk of foodborne illness, delaying or eliminating sprouting or ripening, by sterilization of foods, and as a means of controlling insects and invasive pests.[3] Food irradiation primarily extends the shelf-life of irradiated foods by effectively destroying organisms responsible for spoilage and foodborne illness and inhibiting sprouting.[3]

Although consumer perception of foods treated with irradiation is more negative than those processed by other means, because people imagine that the food is radioactive or mutated,[4] these thoughts don't agree with the understood mechanism by which irradiation works. The food itself is already not alive, so irradiation will not affect it meaningfully. Irradiation will kill the living bacteria, however. Additionally, all independent research, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have performed studies that confirm irradiation to be safe.[3][5][6][7][8][9] In order for a food to be irradiated in the US, the FDA will still require that the specific food be thoroughly tested for irradiation safety.[10]

Food irradiation is permitted by over 60 countries, with about 500,000 metric tons of food annually processed worldwide.[11] The regulations that dictate how food is to be irradiated, as well as the food allowed to be irradiated, vary greatly from country to country. In Austria, Germany, and many other countries of the European Union only dried herbs, spices, and seasonings can be processed with irradiation and only at a specific dose, while in Brazil all foods are allowed at any dose.[12][13][14][15][16]

Cobalt-60 Irradiator
Cobalt-60 irradiation facility is used to test irradiation as a tool to ensure food safety.
Radura international
The international Radura logo, used to show a food has been treated with ionizing radiation.
HD.6B.452 (11984638133)
A portable, trailer-mounted food irradiation machine, circa 1968


Irradiation is used to reduce or eliminate the risk of food-borne illnesses, prevent or slow down spoilage, arrest maturation or sprouting and as a treatment against pests. Depending on the dose, some or all of the pathogenic organisms, microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses present are destroyed, slowed down, or rendered incapable of reproduction. Irradiation cannot return spoiled or over-ripe food to a fresh state. If this food was processed by irradiation, further spoilage would cease and ripening would slow down, yet the irradiation would not destroy the toxins or repair the texture, color, or taste of the food.[17] When targeting bacteria, most foods are irradiated to significantly reduce the number of active microbes, not to sterilize all microbes in the product. In this respect it is similar to pasteurization.

Irradiation is used to create safe foods for people at high risk of infection, or for conditions where food must be stored for long periods of time and proper storage conditions are not available. Foods that can tolerate irradiation at sufficient doses are treated to ensure that the product is completely sterilized. This is most commonly done with rations for astronauts, and special diets for hospital patients.

Irradiation is used to create shelf-stable products. Since irradiation reduces the populations of spoilage microorganisms, and because pre-packed food can be irradiated, the packaging prevents recontamination of the final product.[1]

Irradiation is used to reduce post-harvest losses. It reduces populations of spoilage micro-organisms in the food and can slow down the speed at which enzymes change the food, and therefore slows spoilage and ripening, and inhibits sprouting (e.g., of potato, onion, and garlic).[18]

Food is also irradiated to prevent the spread of invasive pest species through trade in fresh vegetables and fruits, either within countries, or trade across international boundaries. Pests such as insects could be transported to new habitats through trade in fresh produce which could significantly affect agricultural production and the environment were they to establish themselves. This "phytosanitary irradiation"[19] aims to render any hitch-hiking pest incapable of breeding. The pests are sterilized when the food is treated by low doses of irradiation. In general, the higher doses required to destroy pests such as insects, mealybugs, mites, moths, and butterflies either affect the look or taste, or cannot be tolerated by fresh produce.[20] Low dosage treatments (less than 1000 gray) enables trade across quarantine boundaries[21] and may also help reduce spoilage.


Irradiation reduces the risk of infection and spoilage, does not make food radioactive, and the food is shown to be safe, but it does cause chemical reactions that alter the food and therefore alters the chemical makeup, nutritional content, and the sensory qualities of the food.[22] Some of the potential secondary impacts of irradiation are hypothetical, while others are demonstrated. These effects include cumulative impacts to pathogens, people, and the environment due to the reduction of food quality, the transportation and storage of radioactive goods, and destruction of pathogens, changes in the way we relate to food and how irradiation changes the food production and shipping industries.

Immediate effects

The radiation source supplies energetic particles or waves. As these waves/particles pass through a target material they collide with other particles. Around the sites of these collisions chemical bonds are broken, creating short lived radicals (e.g. the hydroxyl radical, the hydrogen atom and solvated electrons). These radicals cause further chemical changes by bonding with and or stripping particles from nearby molecules. When collisions damage DNA or RNA, effective reproduction becomes unlikely, also when collisions occur in cells, cell division is often suppressed.[1]

Irradiation (within the accepted energy limits, as 10 MeV for electrons, 5 MeV for X-rays [US 7.5 MeV] and gamma rays from Cobalt-60) can not make food radioactive, but it does produce radiolytic products, and free radicals in the food. A few of these products are unique, but not considered dangerous.[23]

Irradiation can also alter the nutritional content and flavor of foods, much like cooking.[23] The scale of these chemical changes is not unique. Cooking, smoking, salting, and other less novel techniques, cause the food to be altered so drastically that its original nature is almost unrecognizable, and must be called by a different name. Storage of food also causes dramatic chemical changes, ones that eventually lead to deterioration and spoilage.[24]


A major concern is that irradiation might cause chemical changes that are harmful to the consumer. Several national expert groups and two international expert groups evaluated the available data and concluded that any food at any dose is wholesome and safe to consume as long as it remains palatable and maintains its technical properties (e.g. feel, texture, or color).[6][7]

Irradiated food does not become radioactive, just as an object exposed to light does not start producing light. Radioactivity is the ability of a substance to emit high energy particles. When particles hit the target materials they may free other highly energetic particles. This ends shortly after the end of the exposure, much like objects stop reflecting light when the source is turned off and warm objects emit heat until they cool down but do not continue to produce their own heat. To modify a material so that it keeps emitting radiation (induce radiation) the atomic cores (nucleus) of the atoms in the target material must be modified.

It is impossible for food irradiators to induce radiation in a product. Irradiators emit electrons or photons and the radiation is intrinsically radiated at precisely known strengths (wavelengths for photons, and speeds for electrons). These radiated particles at these strengths can never be strong enough to modify the nucleus of the targeted atom in the food, regardless of how many particles hit the target material, and radioactivity can not be induced without modifying the nucleus.[23]

Chemical changes

Compounds known as free radicals form when food is irradiated. Most of these are oxidizers (i.e., accept electrons) and some react very strongly. According to the free-radical theory of aging excessive amounts of these free radicals can lead to cell injury and cell death, which may contribute to many diseases.[25] However, this generally relates to the free radicals generated in the body, not the free radicals consumed by the individual, as much of these are destroyed in the digestive process.

Most of the substances found in irradiated food are also found in food that has been subjected to other food processing treatments, and are therefore not unique. One family of chemicals (2ACB's) are uniquely formed by irradiation (unique radiolytic products), and this product is nontoxic. When fatty acids are irradiated, a family of compounds called 2-alkylcyclobutanones (2-ACBs) are produced. These are thought to be unique radiolytic products. When irradiating food, all other chemicals occur in a lower or comparable frequency to other food processing techniques.[6][7][26][27] Furthermore, the quantities in which they occur in irradiated food are lower or similar to the quantities formed in heat treatments.[6][7][26][27]

The radiation doses to cause toxic changes are much higher than the doses used during irradiation, and taking into account the presence of 2-ACBs along with what is known of free radicals, these results lead to the conclusion that there is no significant risk from radiolytic products.[5]

Food quality

Ionizing radiation can change food quality but in general very high levels of radiation treatment (many thousands of gray) are necessary to adversely change nutritional content, as well as the sensory qualities (taste, appearance, and texture). Irradiation to the doses used commercially to treat food have very little negative impact on the sensory qualities and nutrient content in foods. When irradiation is used to maintain food quality for a longer period of time (improve the shelf stability of some sensory qualities and nutrients) the improvement means that more consumers have access to the original taste, texture, appearance, and nutrients.[28][29][30] The changes in quality and nutrition depend on the degree of treatment and may vary greatly from food to food.[18]

There has been low level gamma irradiation that has been attempted on arugula,[31] spinach,[32] cauliflower,[33] ash gourd,[34] bamboo shoots,[35] coriander, parsley, and watercress.[36] There has been limited information, however, regarding the physical, chemical and/or bioactive properties and the shelf life on these minimally processed vegetables.[30]

There is some degradation of vitamins caused by irradiation, but is similar to or even less than the loss caused by other processes that achieve the same result. Other processes like chilling, freezing, drying, and heating also result in some vitamin loss.[18]

The changes in the flavor of fatty foods like meats, nuts and oils are sometimes noticeable, while the changes in lean products like fruits and vegetables are less so. Some studies by the irradiation industry show that for some properly treated fruits and vegetables irradiation is seen by consumers to improve the sensory qualities of the product compared to untreated fruits and vegetables.[18]

Watercress (Nasturtium Officinale) is a rapidly growing aquatic or semi aquatic perennial plant. Because chemical agents do not provide efficient microbial reductions, watercress has been tested with gamma irradiation treatment in order to improve both safety and the shelf life of the product.[37] It is traditionally used on horticultural products to prevent sprouting and post-packaging contamination, delay post-harvest ripening, maturation and senescence.[30]

In a Food Chemistry food journal, scientists studied the suitability of gamma irradiation of 1, 2, and 5 kGy for preserving quality parameters of the fresh cut watercress at around 4 degrees Celsius for 7 days. They determined that a 2 kGy dose of irradiation was the dose that contained most similar qualities to non-stored control samples, which is one of the goals of irradiation.[28] 2 kGy preserved high levels of reducing sugars and favoured polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA); while samples of the 5 kGy dose revealed high contents of sucrose and monounsaturated fat (MUFA). Both cases the watercress samples obtained healthier fatty acids profiles.[29] However, a 5kGy dose better preserved the antioxidant activity and total flavonoids.[30]

Long-term impacts

If the majority of food was irradiated at high-enough levels to significantly decrease its nutritional content, there would be an increased risk of developing nutritionally-based illnesses if additional steps, such as changes in eating habits, were not taken to mitigate this.[38] Furthermore, for at least three studies on cats, the consumption of irradiated food was associated with a loss of tissue in the myelin sheath, leading to reversible paralysis. Researchers suspect that reduced levels of vitamin A and high levels of free radicals may be the cause.[39] This effect is thought to be specific to cats and has not been reproduced in any other animal. To produce these effects, the cats were fed solely on food that was irradiated at a dose at least five times higher than the maximum allowable dose.[39]

It may seem reasonable to assume that irradiating food might lead to radiation-tolerant strains, similar to the way that strains of bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics. Bacteria develop a resistance to antibiotics after an individual uses antibiotics repeatedly. Much like pasteurization plants, products that pass through irradiation plants are processed once, and are not processed and reprocessed. Cycles of heat treatment have been shown to produce heat-tolerant bacteria, yet no problems have appeared so far in pasteurization plants. Furthermore, when the irradiation dose is chosen to target a specific species of microbe, it is calibrated to doses several times the value required to target the species. This ensures that the process randomly destroys all members of a target species.[40] Therefore, the more irradiation-tolerant members of the target species are not given any evolutionary advantage. Without evolutionary advantage, selection does not occur. As to the irradiation process directly producing mutations that lead to more virulent, radiation-resistant strains, the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Food found that there is no evidence; on the contrary, irradiation has been found to cause loss of virulence and infectivity, as mutants are usually less competitive and less adapted.[41]


Some who advocate against food irradiation argue the safety of irradiated food is not scientifically proven because there are a lack of long-term studies [42][43] in spite of the fact that hundreds of animal feeding studies of irradiated food, including multigenerational studies, have been performed since 1950.[5] Endpoints investigated have included subchronic and chronic changes in metabolism, histopathology, function of most systems, reproductive effects, growth, teratogenicity, and mutagenicity. A large number of studies have been performed; meta-studies have supported the safety of irradiated food.[5][6][7][8][9]

The below experiments are cited by food irradiation opponents, but either could not be verified in later experiments, could not be clearly attributed to the radiation effect, or could be attributed to an inappropriate design of the experiment.[5][18]

  • India's National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) found an elevated rate of cells with more than one set of genes (polyploidy) in humans and animals when fed wheat that was irradiated recently (within 12 weeks). Upon analysis, scientists determined that the techniques used by the NIN allowed for too much human error and statistical variation; therefore, the results were unreliable. After multiple studies by independent agencies and scientists, no correlation between polyploidy and irradiation of food could be found.[18]

Indirect effects of irradiation

The indirect effects of irradiation are the concerns and benefits of irradiation that are related to how making food irradiation a common process will change the world, with emphasis on the system of food production.

If irradiation were to become common in the food handling process there would be a reduction of the prevalence of foodborne illness and potentially the eradication of specific pathogens.[44] However, multiple studies suggest that an increased rate of pathogen growth may occur when irradiated food is cross-contaminated with a pathogen, as the competing spoilage organisms are no longer present.[45] This being said, cross contamination itself becomes less prevalent with an increase in usage of irradiated foods.[46]

The ability to remove bacterial contamination through post-processing by irradiation may reduce the fear of mishandling food which could cultivate a cavalier attitude toward hygiene and result in contaminants other than bacteria. However, concerns that the pasteurization of milk would lead to increased contamination of milk were prevalent when mandatory pasteurization was introduced, but these fears never materialized after adoption of this law. Therefore, it is unlikely for irradiation to cause an increase of illness due to nonbacteria-based contamination.[47]


Up to the point where the food is processed by irradiation, the food is processed in the same way as all other food. To treat the food, they are exposed to a radioactive source, for a set period of time to achieve a desired dose. Radiation may be emitted by a radioactive substance, or by X-ray and electron beam accelerators. Special precautions are taken to ensure the food stuffs never come in contact with the radioactive substances and that the personnel and the environment are protected from exposure radiation.[48] Irradiation treatments are typically classified by dose (high, medium, and low), but are sometimes classified by the effects of the treatment[49] (radappertization, radicidation and radurization). Food irradiation is sometimes referred to as "cold pasteurization"[50] or "electronic pasteurization"[51] because ionizing the food does not heat the food to high temperatures during the process, and the effect is similar to heat pasteurization. The term "cold pasteurization" is controversial because the term may be used to disguise the fact the food has been irradiated and pasteurization and irradiation are fundamentally different processes.

Treatment costs vary as a function of dose and facility usage. A pallet or tote is typically exposed for several minutes to hours depending on dose. Low-dose applications such as disinfestation of fruit range between US$0.01/lbs and US$0.08/lbs while higher-dose applications can cost as much as US$0.20/lbs.[52]


Food processors and manufacturers today struggle with using affordable, efficient packaging materials for irradiation based processing. The implementation of irradiation on prepackaged foods has been found to impact foods by inducing specific chemical alterations to the food packaging material that migrates into the food. Cross-linking in various plastics can lead to physical and chemical modifications that can increase the overall molecular weight. On the other hand, chain scission is fragmentation of polymer chains that leads to a molecular weight reduction.[3]


The radiation absorbed dose is the amount energy absorbed per unit weight of the target material. Dose is used because, when the same substance is given the same dose, similar changes are observed in the target material. The SI unit for dose is grays (Gy or J/kg). Dosimeters are used to measure dose, and are small components that, when exposed to ionizing radiation, change measurable physical attributes to a degree that can be correlated to the dose received. Measuring dose (dosimetry) involves exposing one or more dosimeters along with the target material.[53][54]

For purposes of legislation doses are divided into low (up to 1 kGy), medium (1 kGy to 10 kGy), and high-dose applications (above 10 kGy).[55] High-dose applications are above those currently permitted in the US for commercial food items by the FDA and other regulators around the world.[56] Though these doses are approved for non commercial applications, such as sterilizing frozen meat for NASA astronauts (doses of 44 kGy)[57] and food for hospital patients.

Applications of food irradiation[55][58]
Application Dose (kGy)
Low dose (up to 1 kGy) Inhibit sprouting (potatoes, onions, yams, garlic) 0.06 - 0.2
Delay in ripening (strawberries, potatoes) 0.5 - 1.0
Prevent insect infestation (grains, cereals, coffee beans, spices, dried nuts, dried fruits, dried fish, mangoes, papayas) 0.15 - 1.0
Parasite control and inactivation (tape worm, trichina) 0.3 - 1.0
Medium dose (1 kGy to 10 kGy) Extend shelf-life (raw and fresh fish, seafood, fresh produce, refrigerated and frozen meat products) 1.0 - 7.0
Reduce risk of pathogenic and spoilage microbes (meat, seafood, spices, and poultry) 1.0 - 7.0
Increased juice yield, reduction in cooking time of dried vegetables 3.0 - 7.0
High dose (above 10 kGy) Enzymes (dehydrated) 10.0
Sterilization of spices, dry vegetable seasonings 30.0 max
Sterilization of packaging material 10.0 - 25.0
Sterilization of foods (NASA and hospitals) 44.0


Gamma irradiation

Gamma irradiation is produced from the radioisotopes cobalt-60 and caesium-137, which are derived by neutron bombardment of cobalt-59 and as a nuclear source by-product, respectively.[55] Cobalt-60 is the most common source of gamma rays for food irradiation in commercial scale facilities as it is water insoluble and hence has little risk of environmental contamination by leakage into the water systems.[55] As for transportation of the radiation source, cobalt-60 is transported in special trucks that prevent release of radiation and meet standards mentioned in the Regulations for Safe Transport of Radioactive Materials of the International Atomic Energy Act.[59] The special trucks must meet high safety standards and pass extensive tests to be approved to ship radiation sources. Conversely, caesium-137, is water soluble and poses a risk of environmental contamination. Insufficient quantities are available for large scale commercial use. An incident where water-soluble caesium-137 leaked into the source storage pool requiring NRC intervention[60] has led to near elimination of this radioisotope.

Cobalt 60 stored under water when not in use
Cobalt 60 stored in Gamma Irradiation machine

Gamma irradiation is widely used due to its high penetration depth and dose uniformity, allowing for large-scale applications with high through puts.[55] Additionally, gamma irradiation is significantly less expensive than using an X-ray source In most designs, the radioisotope, contained in stainless steel pencils, is stored in a water-filled storage pool which absorbs the radiation energy when not in use. For treatment, the source is lifted out of the storage tank, and product contained in totes is passed around the pencils to achieve required processing.[55]

Electron beam

Treatment of electron beams is created as a result of high energy electrons in an accelerator that generates electrons accelerated to 99% the speed of light.[55] This system uses electrical energy and can be powered on and off. The high power correlates with a higher throughput and lower unit cost, but electron beams have low dose uniformity and a penetration depth of centimeters.[55] Therefore, electron beam treatment works for products that have low thickness.

Clam 2017 foto 2
Irradiated Guava: Spring Valley Fruits, Mexico


X-rays are produced by bombardment of dense target material with high energy accelerated electrons(this process is known as bremsstrahlung-conversion), giving rise to a continuous energy spectrum.[55] Heavy metals, such as tantalum and tungsten, are used because of their high atomic numbers and high melting temperatures.Tantalum is usually preferred versus tungsten for industrial, large-area, high-power targets because it is more workable than tungsten and has a higher threshold energy for induced reactions.[61] Like electron beams, x-rays do not require the use of radioactive materials and can be turned off when not in use. X-rays have high penetration depths and high dose uniformity but they are a very expensive source of irradiation as only 8% of the incident energy is converted into X-rays.[55]


Efficiency illustration of the different radiation technologies (electron beam, X-ray, gamma rays)

The cost of food irradiation is influenced by dose requirements, the food's tolerance of radiation, handling conditions, i.e., packaging and stacking requirements, construction costs, financing arrangements, and other variables particular to the situation.[62] Irradiation is a capital-intensive technology requiring a substantial initial investment, ranging from $1 million to $5 million. In the case of large research or contract irradiation facilities, major capital costs include a radiation source, hardware (irradiator, totes and conveyors, control systems, and other auxiliary equipment), land (1 to 1.5 acres), radiation shield, and warehouse. Operating costs include salaries (for fixed and variable labor), utilities, maintenance, taxes/insurance, cobalt-60 replenishment, general utilities, and miscellaneous operating costs.[52][63] Perishable food items, like fruits, vegetables and meats would still require to be handled in the cold chain, so all other supply chain costs remain the same.

Public perception

Negative connotations associated with the word "radiation" are thought to be responsible for low consumer acceptance. Several national expert groups and two international expert groups evaluated the available data and concluded that any food at any dose is wholesome and safe to consume.[64]

Irradiation has been approved by many countries. For example, in the U.S. the FDA has approved food irradiation for over fifty years. However, in the past decade the major growth area is for fruits and vegetables that are irradiated to prevent the spread of pests. In the early 2000s in the US, irradiated meat was common at some grocery stores, but because of lack of consumer demand, it is no longer common. Because consumer demand for irradiated food is low, reducing the spoilage between manufacturer and consumer purchase and reducing the risk of food borne illness is currently not sufficient incentive for most manufacturers to supplement their process with irradiation.[22] Nevertheless, food irradiation does take place commercially and volumes are in general increasing at a slow rate, even in the European Union where all member countries allow the irradiation of dried herbs spices and vegetable seasonings but only a few allow other foods to be sold as irradiated.[65]

Although there are some consumers who choose not to purchase irradiated food, a sufficient market has existed for retailers to have continuously stocked irradiated products for years.[66] When labeled irradiated food is offered for retail sale, these consumers buy it and re-purchase it, indicating that it is possible to successfully market irradiated foods, therefore retailers not stocking irradiated foods might be a major bottleneck to the wider adoption of irradiated foods.[66] It is however, widely believed that consumer perception of foods treated with irradiation is more negative than those processed by other means[4] and some industry studies indicate the number of consumers concerned about the safety of irradiated food decreased between 1985 and 1995 to levels comparable to those of people concerned about food additives and preservatives.[67] Even though is it is untrue "People think the product is radioactive," said Harlan Clemmons, president of Sadex, a food irradiation company based in Sioux City, Iowa.[68] Because of these concerns and the increased cost of irradiated foods, there is not a widespread public demand for the irradiation of foods for human consumption.[22] Irradiated food does not become radioactive.

Standards & regulations

The Codex Alimentarius represents the global standard for irradiation of food, in particular under the WTO-agreement. Regardless of treatment source, all processing facilities must adhere to safety standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Codex Code of Practice for the Radiation Processing of Food, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).[69] More specifically, ISO 14470 and ISO 9001 provide in-depth information regarding safety in irradiation facilities.[69]

All commercial irradiation facilities contain safety systems are designed to prevent exposure of personnel to radiation. The radiation source is constantly shielded by water, concrete, or metal. Irradiation facilities are designed with overlapping layers of protection, interlocks, and safeguards to prevent accidental radiation exposure.[59] Additionally, "melt-downs" do not occur in facilities because the radiation source gives off radiation and decay heat; however, the heat is not sufficient to melt any material.[59]


The Radura symbol, as required by U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations to show a food has been treated with ionizing radiation.

The provisions of the Codex Alimentarius are that any "first generation" product must be labeled "irradiated" as any product derived directly from an irradiated raw material; for ingredients the provision is that even the last molecule of an irradiated ingredient must be listed with the ingredients even in cases where the unirradiated ingredient does not appear on the label. The RADURA-logo is optional; several countries use a graphical version that differs from the Codex-version. The suggested rules for labeling is published at CODEX-STAN – 1 (2005),[70] and includes the usage of the Radura symbol for all products that contain irradiated foods. The Radura symbol is not a designator of quality. The amount of pathogens remaining is based upon dose and the original content and the dose applied can vary on a product by product basis.[71]

The European Union follows the Codex's provision to label irradiated ingredients down to the last molecule of irradiated food. The European Community does not provide for the use of the Radura logo and relies exclusively on labeling by the appropriate phrases in the respective languages of the Member States. The European Union enforces its irradiation labeling laws by requiring its member countries to perform tests on a cross section of food items in the market-place and to report to the European Commission. The results are published annually in the OJ of the European Communities.[72]

The US defines irradiated foods as foods in which the irradiation causes a material change in the food, or a material change in the consequences that may result from the use of the food. Therefore, food that is processed as an ingredient by a restaurant or food processor is exempt from the labeling requirement in the US. All irradiated foods must include a prominent Radura symbol followed in addition to the statement "treated with irradiation" or "treated by irradiation.[63] Bulk foods must be individually labeled with the symbol and statement or, alternatively, the Radura and statement should be located next to the sale container.[3]


Under section 409 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, irradiation of prepackaged foods requires premarket approval for not only the irradiation source for a specific food but also for the food packaging material. Approved packaging materials include various plastic films, yet does not cover a variety of polymers and adhesive based materials that have been found to meet specific standards. The lack of packaging material approval limits manufacturers production and expansion of irradiated prepackaged foods.[55]

Approved materials by FDA for Irradiation according to 21 CFR 179.45:[55]

Material Paper (kraft) Paper (glassine) Paperboard Cellophane (coated) Polyolefin film Polyestyrene film Nylon-6 Vegetable Parchment Nylon 11
Irradiation (kGy) .05 10 10 10 10 10 10 60 60

Food safety

In 2003, the Codex Alimentarius removed any upper dose limit for food irradiation as well as clearances for specific foods, declaring that all are safe to irradiate. Countries such as Pakistan and Brazil have adopted the Codex without any reservation or restriction.

Standards that describe calibration and operation for radiation dosimetry, as well as procedures to relate the measured dose to the effects achieved and to report and document such results, are maintained by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM international) and are also available as ISO/ASTM standards.[73]

All of the rules involved in processing food are applied to all foods before they are irradiated.

United States

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the agency responsible for regulation of radiation sources in the United States.[3] Irradiation, as defined by the FDA is a "food additive" as opposed to a food process and therefore falls under the food additive regulations. Each food approved for irradiation has specific guidelines in terms of minimum and maximum dosage as determined safe by the FDA.[3] Packaging materials containing the food processed by irradiation must also undergo approval. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) amends these rules for use with meat, poultry, and fresh fruit.[74]

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved the use of low-level irradiation as an alternative treatment to pesticides for fruits and vegetables that are considered hosts to a number of insect pests, including fruit flies and seed weevils. Under bilateral agreements that allows less-developed countries to earn income through food exports agreements are made to allow them to irradiate fruits and vegetables at low doses to kill insects, so that the food can avoid quarantine.

European Union

European law dictates that all member countries must allow the sale of irradiated dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings.[75] However, these Directives allow Member States to maintain previous clearances food categories the EC's Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) had previously approved (the approval body is now the European Food Safety Authority). Presently, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom allow the sale of many different types of irradiated foods.[76] Before individual items in an approved class can be added to the approved list, studies into the toxicology of each of such food and for each of the proposed dose ranges are requested. It also states that irradiation shall not be used "as a substitute for hygiene or health practices or good manufacturing or agricultural practice". These Directives only control food irradiation for food retail and their conditions and controls are not applicable to the irradiation of food for patients requiring sterile diets.

Because of the Single Market of the EC any food, even if irradiated, must be allowed to be marketed in any other Member State even if a general ban of food irradiation prevails, under the condition that the food has been irradiated legally in the state of origin. Furthermore, imports into the EC are possible from third countries if the irradiation facility had been inspected and approved by the EC and the treatment is legal within the EC or some Member state.[77][78][79][80][81]


Australia banned irradiated cat food after a national scare where cats suffered from paralyzation after eating a specific brand of highly irradiated catfood for an extended period of time. The suspected culprit was malnutrition from consuming food depleted of Vitamin A by the irradiation process.[82][83] The incident was linked only to a single batch of one brand's product and no illness was linked to any of that brand's other irradiated batches of the same product or to any other brand of irradiated cat food. This, along with incomplete evidence indicating that the cat food was not sufficiently depleted of Vitamin A[84] makes irradiation a less likely cause.[85] Further research has been able to experimentally induce the paralyzation of cats by via Vitamin A deficiency by feeding highly irradiated food.[39] For more details see the Long term impacts section.

Nuclear safety and security

Interlocks and safeguards are mandated to minimize this risk. There have been radiation-related accidents, deaths, and injury at such facilities, many of them caused by operators overriding the safety related interlocks.[86] In a radiation processing facility, radiation specific concerns are supervised by special authorities, while "Ordinary" occupational safety regulations are handled much like other businesses.

The safety of irradiation facilities is regulated by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency and monitored by the different national Nuclear Regulatory Commissions. The regulators enforce a safety culture that mandates that all incidents that occur are documented and thoroughly analyzed to determine the cause and improvement potential. Such incidents are studied by personnel at multiple facilities, and improvements are mandated to retrofit existing facilities and future design.

In the US the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates the safety of the processing facility, and the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) regulates the safe transport of the radioactive sources.

Irradiated food supply

As of 2010, the quantities of foods irradiated in Asia, the EU and the US were 285,200, 9,300, and 103,000 tons.[87] Authorities in some countries use tests that can detect the irradiation of food items to enforce labeling standards and to bolster consumer confidence.[88][89][90] The European Union monitors the market to determine the quantity of irradiated foods, if irradiated foods are labeled as irradiated, and if the irradiation is performed at approved facilities.

Irradiation of fruits and vegetables to prevent the spread of pest and diseases across borders has been increasing globally. In 2010, 18,446 tonnes of fruits and vegetables were irradiated in six countries for export quarantine control. 97% of this was exported to the United States.[87]

In total, 103 000 tonnes of food products were irradiated on mainland United States in 2010. The three types of foods irradiated the most were spices (77.7%), fruits and vegetables (14.6%) and meat and poultry (7.77%). 17 953 tonnes of irradiated fruits and vegetables were exported to the mainland United States.[87] Mexico, the United States' state of Hawaii, Thailand, Vietnam and India export irradiated produce to the mainland U.S.[87][91][92] Mexico, followed by the United States' state of Hawaii, is the largest exporter of irradiated produce to the mainland U.S.[87]

In total, 6 876 tonnes of food products were irradiated in European Union countries in 2013; mainly in four member state countries: Belgium (49.4%), the Netherlands (24.4%), Spain (12.7%) and France (10.0%). The two types of foods irradiated the most were frog legs (46%), and dried herbs and spices (25%). There has been a decrease of 14% in the total quantity of products irradiated in the EU compared to the previous year 2012 (7 972 tonnes).[93]

United States

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have approved irradiation of the following foods and purposes:

  • Packaged refrigerated or frozen red meat[94] — to control pathogens (E. Coli O157:H7 and Salmonella) and to extend shelf life.[95]
  • Packaged poultry — control pathogens (Salmonella and Camplylobacter).[95]
  • Fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains — to control insects and inhibit growth, ripening and sprouting.[95]
  • Pork — to control trichinosis.[95]
  • Herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings[96] — to control insects and microorganisms.[95]
  • Dry or dehydrated enzyme preparations — to control insects and microorganisms.[95]
  • White potatoes — to inhibit sprout development.[95]
  • Wheat and wheat flour — to control insects.[95]
  • Loose or bagged fresh iceberg lettuce and spinach[97]
  • Crustaceans (lobster, shrimp, and crab)[3]
  • Shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops)[3]

Timeline of the history of food irradiation

  • 1895 Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovers X-rays ("bremsstrahlung", from German for radiation produced by deceleration)
  • 1896 Antoine Henri Becquerel discovers natural radioactivity; Minck proposes the therapeutic use[98]
  • 1904 Samuel Prescott describes the bactericide effects Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)[99]
  • 1906 Appleby & Banks: UK patent to use radioactive isotopes to irradiate particulate food in a flowing bed[100]
  • 1918 Gillett: U.S. Patent to use X-rays for the preservation of food[101]
  • 1921 Schwartz describes the elimination of Trichinella from food[102]
  • 1930 Wuest: French patent on food irradiation[103]
  • 1943 MIT becomes active in the field of food preservation for the U.S. Army[104]
  • 1951 U.S. Atomic Energy Commission begins to co-ordinate national research activities
  • 1958 World first commercial food irradiation (spices) at Stuttgart, Germany[105]
  • 1970 Establishment of the International Food Irradiation Project (IFIP), headquarters at the Federal Research Centre for Food Preservation, Karlsruhe, Germany
  • 1980 FAO/IAEA/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Irradiation recommends the clearance generally up to 10 kGy "overall average dose"[6]
  • 1981/1983 End of IFIP after reaching its goals
  • 1983 Codex Alimentarius General Standard for Irradiated Foods: any food at a maximum "overall average dose" of 10 kGy
  • 1984 International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation (ICGFI) becomes the successor of IFIP
  • 1998 The European Union's Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) voted "positive" on eight categories of irradiation applications[106]
  • 1997 FAO/IAEA/WHO Joint Study Group on High-Dose Irradiation recommends to lift any upper dose limit[7]
  • 1999 The European Union issues Directives 1999/2/EC (framework Directive) and 1999/3/EC (implementing Directive) limiting irradiation a positive list whose sole content is one of the eight categories approved by the SFC, but allowing the individual states to give clearances for any food previously approved by the SFC.
  • 2000 Germany leads a veto on a measure to provide a final draft for the positive list.
  • 2003 Codex Alimentarius General Standard for Irradiated Foods: no longer any upper dose limit
  • 2003 The SCF adopts a "revised opinion" that recommends against the cancellation of the upper dose limit.[41]
  • 2004 ICGFI ends
  • 2011 The successor to the SFC, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), reexamines the SFC's list and makes further recommendations for inclusion.[107]

See also


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  7. ^ a b c d e f World Health Organization. High-Dose Irradiation: Wholesomeness of Food Irradiated With Doses Above 10 kGy. Report of a Joint FAO/IAEA/WHO Study Group. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 1999. WHO Technical Report Series No. 890
  8. ^ a b World Health Organization. Safety and Nutritional Adequacy of Irradiated Food. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 1994
  9. ^ a b US Department of Health, and Human Services, Food, and Drug Administration Irradiation in the production, processing, and handling of food. Federal Register 1986; 51:13376-13399
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Further reading

External links

Absorbed dose

Absorbed dose is a measure of the energy deposited in an irradiated medium by ionizing radiation per unit mass. Absorbed dose is used in the calculation of dose uptake in living tissue in both radiation protection (reduction of harmful effects), and radiology (potential beneficial effects for example in cancer treatment). It is also used to directly compare the effect of radiation on inanimate matter.

The SI unit of measure is the gray (Gy), which is defined as one Joule of energy absorbed per kilogram of matter. The older, non-SI CGS unit rad, is sometimes also used, predominantly in the USA.

Ari Brynjolfsson

Ari Brynjolfsson (1926 – 2013; Icelandic spelling Brynjólfsson) was an Icelandic physicist known for his work in America on food irradiation and for the development of radiation facilities.

Food preservation

Food preservation prevents the growth of microorganisms (such as yeasts), or other microorganisms (although some methods work by introducing benign bacteria or fungi to the food), as well as slowing the oxidation of fats that cause rancidity. Food preservation may also include processes that inhibit visual deterioration, such as the enzymatic browning reaction in apples after they are cut during food preparation.

Many processes designed to preserve food involve more than one food preservation method. Preserving fruit by turning it into jam, for example, involves boiling (to reduce the fruit’s moisture content and to kill bacteria, etc.), sugaring (to prevent their re-growth) and sealing within an airtight jar (to prevent recontamination). Some traditional methods of preserving food have been shown to have a lower energy input and carbon footprint, when compared to modern methods.Some methods of food preservation are known to create carcinogens. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization classified processed meat, i.e. meat that has undergone salting, curing, fermenting, and smoking, as "carcinogenic to humans".Maintaining or creating nutritional value, texture and flavor is an important aspect of food preservation.

Gray (unit)

The gray (symbol: Gy) is a derived unit of ionizing radiation dose in the International System of Units (SI). It is defined as the absorption of one joule of radiation energy per kilogram of matter.It is used as a unit of the radiation quantity absorbed dose which measures the energy deposited by ionizing radiation in a unit mass of matter being irradiated, and is used for measuring the delivered dose of ionising radiation in applications such as radiotherapy, food irradiation and radiation sterilization. As a measure of low levels of absorbed dose, it also forms the basis for the calculation of the radiation protection unit the sievert, which is a measure of the health effect of low levels of ionizing radiation on the human body.

The gray is also used in radiation metrology as a unit of the radiation quantity kerma; defined as the sum of the initial kinetic energies of all the charged particles liberated by uncharged ionizing radiation in a sample of matter per unit mass. The gray is an important unit in ionising radiation measurement and was named after British physicist Louis Harold Gray, a pioneer in the measurement of X-ray and radium radiation and their effects on living tissue.The gray was adopted as part of the International System of Units in 1975. The corresponding cgs unit to the gray is the rad (equivalent to 0.01 Gy), which remains common largely in the United States, though "strongly discouraged" in the style guide for U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology authors.

Induced radioactivity

Induced radioactivity, also called artificial radioactivity or man-made radioactivity, is the process of using radiation to cause a previously stable material to become radioactive. The husband and wife team of Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot-Curie (they both began using the surname Joliot-Curie when they married in 1926) discovered induced radioactivity in 1934, and they shared the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this discovery.Irène Curie began her research with her parents, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie, studying the natural radioactivity found in radioactive isotopes. Irène and Pierre Joliot-Curie Irene branched off from the Curies to study turning stable isotopes into radioactive isotopes by bombarding the stable material with alpha particles (denoted α). The Joliot-Curies showed that when lighter elements, such as boron and aluminium, were bombarded with α-particles, the lighter elements continued to emit radiation even after the α−source was removed. They showed that this radiation consisted of particles carrying one unit positive charge with mass equal to that of an electron, now knowns as a beta particle.

Neutron activation is the main form of induced radioactivity. It occurs when an atomic nucleus captures one or more free neutrons. This new, heavier isotope may be either stable or unstable (radioactive), depending on the chemical element involved.

Because free neutrons disintegrate within minutes outside of an atomic nucleus, free neutrons can be obtained only from nuclear decay, nuclear reaction, and high-energy interaction, such as cosmic radiation or particle accelerator emissions. Neutrons that have been slowed down through a neutron moderator (thermal neutrons) are more likely to be captured by nuclei than fast neutrons.

A less common form of induced radioactivity results from removing a neutron by photodisintegration. In this reaction, a high energy photon (a gamma ray) strikes a nucleus with an energy greater than the binding energy of the nucleus, which releases a neutron. This reaction has a minimum cutoff of 2 MeV (for deuterium) and around 10 MeV for most heavy nuclei. Many radionuclides do not produce gamma rays with energy high enough to induce this reaction.

The isotopes used in food irradiation (cobalt-60, caesium-137) both have energy peaks below this cutoff and thus cannot induce radioactivity in the food.Some induced radioactivity is produced by background radiation, which is mostly natural. However, since natural radiation is not very intense in most places on Earth, the amount of induced radioactivity in a single location is usually very small.

The conditions inside certain types of nuclear reactors with high neutron flux can induce radioactivity. The components in those reactors may become highly radioactive from the radiation to which they are exposed. Induced radioactivity increases the amount of nuclear waste that must eventually be disposed, but it is not referred to as radioactive contamination unless it is uncontrolled.

Further research originally done by Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie has led to modern techniques to treat various types of cancers.

International Facility for Food Irradiation Technology

The International Facility for Food Irradiation Technology (IFFIT) was a research and training centre at the Institute of Atomic Research in Agriculture in Wageningen, Netherlands, sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Kiki Carter

Kiki Carter (born Kimberli Wilson; November 21, 1957 in Gainesville, Florida) is an environmental activist, organizer, musician, songwriter, and columnist.

Leona Woods

Leona Harriet Woods (August 9, 1919 – November 10, 1986), later known as Leona Woods Marshall and Leona Woods Marshall Libby, was an American physicist who helped build the first nuclear reactor and the first atomic bomb.

At age 23, she was the youngest and only female member of the team which built and experimented with the world's first nuclear reactor (then called a pile), Chicago Pile-1, in a project led by her mentor Enrico Fermi. In particular, Woods was instrumental in the construction and then utilization of geiger counters for analysis during experimentation. She was the only woman present when the reactor went critical. She worked with Fermi on the Manhattan Project, and, together with her first husband John Marshall, she subsequently helped solve the problem of xenon poisoning at the Hanford plutonium production site, and supervised the construction and operation of Hanford's plutonium production reactors.

After the war, she became a fellow at Fermi's Institute for Nuclear Studies. She later worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, the Brookhaven National Laboratory, and New York University, where she became a professor in 1962. Her research involved high-energy physics, astrophysics and cosmology. In 1966 she divorced Marshall and married Nobel laureate Willard Libby. She became a professor at the University of Colorado, and a staff member at RAND Corporation. In later life she became interested in ecological and environmental issues, and she devised a method of using the isotope ratios in tree rings to study climate change. She was a strong advocate of food irradiation as a means of killing harmful bacteria.

Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology

The Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology, also known as NIAB, is an agriculture and food irradiation national research institute managed by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. Along with Nuclear Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the NIAB reports directly to the PAEC Biological Science Directorate whose current member is Abdul Rashid. The current director is Dr.Muhammad Hamed, and it is located in Faisalabad, Punjab, Pakistan.

Nuclear Institute for Food and Agriculture

The Nuclear Institute for Food and Agriculture, known as NIFA, is one of four agriculture and food irradiation research institute managed by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. The institute is tasked to carry out research in Crop production and protection, soil fertility, water management and conservation and value addition of food resources, employing nuclear and other contemporary techniques.

NIFA was the brainchild of Ishrat Hussain Usmani, bureaucrat and chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, however due to economic difficulties, the plans were not carried out until the 1980s. In 1982, Munir Ahmad Khan led the establishment of the institute and its first director was Abdul Rashid who revolutionized the institute.

The NIFA administers cobalt-60 radiation source, Laser absorption spectrometer and Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometry, Near-infrared spectrometer and Ultraviolet–visible spectroscopy.

A library was opened in 1990, and recently, the institute has acquired 75 acres of land at CHASNUPP-I site.

Nuclear technology

Nuclear technology is technology that involves the nuclear reactions of atomic nuclei. Among the notable nuclear technologies are nuclear reactors, nuclear medicine and nuclear weapons. It is also used, among other things, in smoke detectors and gun sights.


Radappertization is a form of food irradiation which applies a dose of ionizing radiation sufficient to reduce the number and activity of viable microorganisms to such an extent that very few, if any, are detectable in the treated food by any recognized method (viruses being excepted). No microbial spoilage or toxicity should become detectable in a food so treated, regardless of the conditions under which it is stored, provided the packaging remains undamaged. The required dose is usually in the range of 25-45 kiloGrays. The shelf life of radappertized foods correctly packaged will mainly depend on the service life of the packaging material and its barrier properties.

Radappertization is derived from the combination of radiation and Appert, the name of the French scientist and engineer who invented sterilized food for the troops of Napoleon.


Radicidation is a specific case of food irradiation where the dose of ionizing radiation applied to the food is sufficient to reduce the number of viable specific non-spore-forming pathogenic bacteria to such a level that none are detectable when the treated food is examined by any recognized method. The required dose is in the range of 2 – 8 kGy. The term may also be applied to the destruction of parasites such as tapeworm and trichina in meat, in which case the required dose is in the range of 0.1 – 1 kGy. When the process is used specifically for destroying enteropathogenic and enterotoxinogenic organisms belonging to the genus Salmonella, it is referred to as Salmonella radicidation.

The term Radicidation is derived from radiation and 'caedere' (Latin for fell, cut, kill).

Radioactive source

A radioactive source is a known quantity of a radionuclide which emits ionizing radiation; typically one or more of the radiation types gamma rays, alpha particles, beta particles, and neutron radiation.

Sources can be used for irradiation, where the radiation performs a significant ionising function on a target material, or as a radiation metrology source, which is used for the calibration of radiometric process and radiation protection instrumentation. They are also used for industrial process measurements, such as thickness gauging in the paper and steel industries. Sources can be sealed in a container (highly penetrating radiation) or deposited on a surface (weakly penetrating radiation), or they can be in a fluid.

As an irradiation source they are used in medicine for radiation therapy and in industry for such as industrial radiography, food irradiation, sterilization, vermin disinfestation, and irradiation crosslinking of PVC.

Radionuclides are chosen according to the type and character of the radiation they emit, intensity of emission, and the half-life of their decay. Common source radionuclides include cobalt-60, iridium-192, and strontium-90. The SI measurement quantity of source activity is the Becquerel, though the historical unit Curies is still in partial use, such as in the USA, despite the USA NIST strongly advising the use of the SI unit. The SI unit for health purposes is mandatory in the EU.

An irradiation source typically lasts for between 5 and 15 years before its activity drops below useful levels. However sources with long half-life radionuclides when utilised as calibration sources can be used for much longer.


The Radura is the international symbol indicating a food product has been irradiated. The Radura is usually green and resembles a plant in circle. The top half of the circle is dashed. Graphical details and colours vary between countries.


Radurization, or radurisation, is a process of food irradiation in which certain packaged and non-packaged foods (such as potatoes and spices) are treated with mild ionizing radiation dose, usually less than 10 kGray, but sufficient to eliminate or to significantly reduce the number of pathogens and to extend the shelf life. The process is intended to sterilize foods by destroying or inactivating microorganisms that contribute to spoilage, including vegetative bacteria. The required dose is in the range of 0.4 – 10 kGy.

Saeed Ahmad Nagra

Saeed Ahmad Nagra is a Pakistani Biochemist and a scientist in the field of biomedical science. His articles heavily focus on the field of Food irradiation and Agriculture. He is also teaching at the University of Punjab.

Tony Webb

Dr Tony Webb (born 1945) is an English social scientist and former academic residing in Australia. He is the co-author of several books including Radiation : your health at risk (1980), Food irradiation: The facts (1987) which he wrote with Tim Lang and Radiation and your health (1988). In 1988, Webb toured Australia with Friends of the Earth, speaking in opposition to the irradiation of food. His work as a political campaigner has focused on the health effects of ionising and non-ionising radiation from the 1980s until present.He currently resides in South Australia, where he was a member of the Citizens' Jury formed to consider the findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission in 2016. He stood as the Labor party's candidate in the electoral district of Heysen in the 2018 South Australian General Election but was unsuccessful.

Walter M. Urbain

Walter Mathias Urbain (1910 – January 15, 2002) is a distinguished American scientist who helped pioneer food science through innovative research during World War II. His contributions include new patents and methodologies in food engineering, irradiation, and meat science. Because of his contributions, the US government, especially the US Army and the former US Atomic Energy Commission, developed national programs on food irradiation during the 1950s which led to the development of international standards and the application of his methods on a global basis.

Adulterants, food contaminants
Parasitic infections through food
Sugar substitutes
Toxins, poisons, environment pollution
Food contamination incidents
Regulation, standards, watchdogs

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