Is Irradiated Food Safe?

Irradiation can kill harmful bacteria and keep food from spoiling. But opponents worry about the safety of irradiated food. A closer look at the pros and cons of food irradiation.

Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.N
5-minute read
Episode #122

In 2008, after thousands were sickened by contaminated spinach and lettuce, the FDA decided to allow the use of irradiation to kill harmful micro-organisms in fresh spinach and lettuce, making these products safer for consumers. The use of ionizing radiation in the food supply is not new. But the ruling reignited a debate over whether irradiated food is safe.

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Why is Food Irradiated?

Food irradiation has two main purposes:

  1. to reduce the risk of food-borne illness and

  2. to retard spoilage of foods.

What Is Irradiation?

Irradiation, also known as ionizing radiation, involves exposing foods to controlled doses of radiation from x-rays, electron beams, or gamma rays. At very low doses, irradiation can kill insects and parasites. It also disrupts enzymatic activities that cause food to ripen or sprout. At higher doses, irradiation can kill pathogenic bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter.   

As with any form of food processing, including freezing, pasteurization, cooking, or even storage, irradiation does result in some loss of nutritional value. But irradiation does not “kill” all the vitamins in a food. And because no heat is involved, the taste, texture, and appearance of foods are largely unchanged. In blind taste tests, consumers were unable to tell the difference between irradiated and non-irradiated foods.

What are the 3 Benefits of Irradiation?

Food irradiation offers at least three advantages:

  1. Irradiation would make the food supply safer.  Every year millions are sickened and thousands die from food-borne illness. In recent years, we’ve seen huge outbreaks and recalls caused by contaminated eggs, peanut butter, jalapeno peppers, and bagged spinach and lettuce.

Many argue that we could reduce the number and certainly the magnitude of these outbreaks by moving away from our industrial-scale food production and distribution system. Others argue that it’s simply not practical or economically feasible to produce the nation’s (or the world’s) food supply on small-scale, local farms. Whichever side of that argument you’re on, however, food irradiation definitely makes the current food supply safer.

  1. Irradiation could reduce loss and waste. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, a heartbreaking 25% of all the food that is harvested around the world ends up being lost to insects, bacteria, and spoilage. Irradiation can kill bugs and bacteria and keep food from rotting before it can be used.

  1. Irradiation can reduce the use of harmful chemicals. Short of irradiation, the best way to protect food from pests and spoilage is fumigation it with chemicals, many of which are harmful to the environment.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.N