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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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Irradiation - Questions & Answers

  1. What is food irradiation?
    Food irradiation is a food-safety technology that can eliminate disease-causing pathogens from foods. Similar to pasteurization of milk and pressure cooking of canned foods, treating food with ionizing radiation can kill bacteria and parasites that would otherwise cause foodborne diseases. 
  2. What is FDA’s role in ensuring that irradiation of food is safe?
    FDA regulates the sources of radiation for treating foods as “food additives,” meaning any use of these sources by the food industry require premarket approval by FDA. FDA approves a source of radiation for food use only after the agency has determined that the proposed use will be safe at the requested maximum absorbed dose. Therefore, only uses of radiation that have undergone this rigorous safety assessment are permitted.
  3. What happens when food is irradiated?
    When food is irradiated, chemical substances may form from absorption of the radiation. The types and amounts of radiation-induced chemical reaction products for approved sources of radiation are the same or very similar to those found in cooked food. The radiation also may affect nutrients in the food and the microbiological profile of the treated food. All three of these areas are thoroughly evaluated by FDA during the review of the food additive petition for each proposed use of radiation to ensure that the use is safe.
  4. Specifically, what did the final rule for irradiation of fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach permit?
    In 2008 FDA amended the food additive regulations to provide for the safe use of ionizing radiation for control of food-borne pathogens and extension of shelf-life in fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach at maximum absorbed dose not to exceed 4.0 kilogray (kGy).
  5. What foods has FDA approved for irradiation?
    The list of food products permitted to be irradiated under FDA regulations, as well as the purpose and maximum absorbed dose, are available in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations: PART 179—IRRADIATION IN THE PRODUCTION, PROCESSING AND HANDLING OF FOOD.
  6. What is the position of international bodies on food irradiation?
    Codex Alimentarius, a body established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO, published its standard for irradiated foods in 1983 stipulating that the maximum absorbed dose delivered to food should not exceed 10 kGy, except when necessary to achieve a legitimate technological purpose. While the United States is a member of these international organizations and was instrumental in the conclusions of the safety of irradiated foods, the FDA has done its own independent analysis of the safety of irradiated foods. FDA continues to review the safety of irradiated food to ensure that the U.S. food supply is safe.
  7. Do other countries treat food with irradiation?
    Many countries, including France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Israel, Thailand, Russia, China, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, irradiate food under certain conditions. In some European countries, irradiation has been in use for decades.
  8. Are irradiated foods safe to eat?
    Yes, approved uses of irradiation are safe. Like pasteurization of milk, irradiation reduces the number of harmful bacteria and parasites either within or on the food. This offers an additional layer of protection for consumers, making food irradiation an important food-safety tool in preventing and combating foodborne illness. Scientific studies on food irradiation have shown that the sources and amount of energy approved by FDA can be safely applied to food. FDA and other public health agencies worldwide have been studying the safety of food irradiation since the beginning of the 20th century and have determined it to be safe.
  9. How do microwaves work?
    Microwaves are very-high-frequency radio waves that swing back and forth at a frequency of about 2 billion cycles per second. During this process, they make certain molecules move, and once they're moving, they're hot. Microwaves enter food from the outside, and penetrate instantly into a chunk of food, heating and cooking as they go. Source: Excerpted from FDA/CFSAN Food Safety A to Z Reference Guide, 2007