Is Food Irradiation Safe?

Written By: Gloria Tsang, RD

Title: Founding Registered Dietitian

Alumni: University of British Columbia

Last Updated on:

On August 21, 2008, the FDA approved irradiation on iceberg lettuce and spinach. Food irradiation has always been a controversial subject. So, is it safe?

What is Food Irradiation?

Food irradiation involves exposing foods to ionizing radiation to destroy harmful bacteria and other organisms. This process does not significantly raise the temperature of the food or contribute to any noticeable loss of nutrients. Food irradiation cannot prevent food borne bacteria from coming in contact with food after the irradiation process has taken place.

Food Irradiation History in the United States and Canada

In the United States, there is a 50- year history of scientific research and testing on food irradiation. In 1955 the U.S. army medical department began to assess the safety of irradiated foods. FDA approval for irradiation of specific foods soon followed, including:

  • White potatoes (1960s)
  • Wheat and wheat powder (1963)
  • Meats for astronauts to consume in space (early 1970s)
  • Spices, seasonings, pork, fresh fruits, and dry and dehydrated substances (1980s)
  • Poultry (1990)
  • Red meats (1997)

To date, unlike the United States, Canada does not permit food irradiation on meat or fresh produce.

Common Myths About Food Irradiation

Myth 1: The product will become radioactive.
Myth Busted: Not true – the product will contain no radioactive elements.

Myth 2: The nutrient loss will be significant (especially Vitamins B and C)
Myth Busted: Studies reviewed by the American Dietetic Association have shown that nutrient loss was “small and often substantially less than other methods of preservation.” In fact, any nutrients lost are approximately equivalent to levels that are lost when cooking the food.

The Bottom Line

Those who avoid purchasing irradiated food do so as a personal choice. However, as stated by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, scientists feel that the use of food irradiation is not a “silver bullet” for food safety. Instead, there should be very strict practices from the farm to the table so that everyone is following proper food safety guidelines. Even if a food has been irradiated, it should still be washed. Remember to always read food labels to check and see if food has been irradiated. All foods sold at the retail level that are treated with irradiation are required to include the radura symbol, or display “treated by irradiation” or “treated with radiation” somewhere on the packaging.

Extra: Which Organizations Endorse Irradiation

Many government agencies in the United States endorse irradiation, including:

  • American Dietetic Association
  • American Council on Science and Health
  • American Medical Association
  • American Veterinary Medical Association
  • Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Food and Drug Administration
  • Food Safety and Inspection Service
  • World Health Organization


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