Food Safety Feature Articles
Irradiation of food helps make it safe
Tammy Roberts, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Barton County, University of Missouri Extension
Although only a small amount of food in the U.S. is irradiated, it is an important method to consider when discussing food safety. According to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, food irradiation is a process where approved foods are exposed to radiant energy like x-rays, gamma rays and electron beams. This process reduces the numbers of harmful bacteria in food including E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter. It is important to note that irradiation does not take the place of good sanitation and safe food handling.
Food irradiation is not thought to change the nutritional value of food any more than other types of processing like canning. The change in flavor is minimal.
Food irradiation was first approved for wheat flour for the control of mold in 1963. In 1964, irradiation was allowed for potatoes to inhibit sprouting. Other food items approved for irradiation include fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, meat and poultry. The most recent approval was for fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach in August 2008. This decision was made after a foodborne illness outbreak caused by contaminated spinach.
Although irradiation is approved for a variety of foods, it is used on a very limited basis. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, about 97 million pounds of food are irradiated each year. Most of that — about 95 million pounds — is herbs and spices. The food industry uses food irradiation on a limited basis because consumers are wary of the method.
Food irradiation is considered to be safe by several well-respected scientific and health-related organizations. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, Public Health Service, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider food irradiation to be safe. The American Medical Association, American Dietetic Association and Institute of Food technologists as well as the World Health Organization also endorse the process.
If a food is irradiated, it must have a round circle symbol called the radura (see image above) displayed on the package along with the words “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation.”
Last update: Wednesday, January 12, 2011