Food Irradiation: A Healthy Secret

Published June 1, 2007

This article is the twelfth in a continuing series excerpted from the book Smoke or Steam? A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, by Samuel Aldrich, adapted and serialized by Jay Lehr.

Irradiation of food, which is highly effective in killing harmful organisms, is relatively new and widely misunderstood, and it has been flagrantly misrepresented in the media.

Irradiation aims to cut down on the 6.5 million cases of food-borne sickness that occur in the U.S. each year, resulting in more than 10,000 annual deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first operating license for a commercial food irradiator was issued in January 1992.

The deaths of three children and food poisoning of 450 from eating hamburger in a fast food chain in Washington State in 1993 were a dramatic example of the threat.

Irradiation Safe, Effective

Irradiation kills salmonella on poultry, trichina in pork, hazardous organisms in beef and seafood, and insects and larvae in food. It provides an alternative to certain chemicals and pesticides to reduce spoilage of fruits and vegetables after harvest.

In addition, irradiation allows some fruits and vegetables to ripen more fully before harvest, thus enhancing flavor.

Irradiation of food has been researched since the 1950s, and its use is approved in more than 30 countries.

The practice has lagged in the United States because a few small groups (mainly non-scientists) have attempted to promote boycotts. They misunderstand or misrepresent the treatment process, associating it with radiation from nuclear warfare.

Image Problems

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Venneman reported in 2000 that very little meat has been irradiated because of concerns in the food industry about consumer reaction. If the consumer is not going to accept it, it does not matter what you call it.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation for wheat and flour in 1963, for white potatoes in 1964, for pork in 1985, for fruits and vegetables in 1986, for poultry in 1990, and for red meats in 2000. Irradiation has been approved by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization. The long delay in commercial development of irradiation in the United States is similar to the 50-year delay in obtaining acceptance of milk pasteurization. Many illnesses and deaths could have been prevented if the technology had been accepted sooner.

Guiding Principles

A scientific group dedicated to radiation protection, the Health Physics Society, has drawn the following conclusions about irradiation:

  • Food preservation by irradiation offers great potential benefits with few, if any, offsetting hazards.
  • The technical feasibility of safely preserving certain foods by irradiation is firmly established by experimental evidence and experience.
  • Federal regulatory bodies are proceeding cautiously in approving new applications in technology and are basing their decisions to approve or disapprove new technologies on the best scientific and technical information.
  • Foods preserved by irradiation procedures do not become radioactive or toxic as a result of irradiation.
  • The application of irradiation technology should neither be permitted nor precluded on the basis of misinformation.

Obstructionist Tactics

The food irradiation experience is an example of obstructionist tactics used by a few to prevent the adoption of a new, health-promoting technology. Irradiating food is like passing a suitcase through an airport x-ray scanner. The suitcase does not become radioactive, and neither does food that is irradiated.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Samuel Aldrich is an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois. His groundbreaking book for laymen, Smoke or Steam? A Guide to Environmental, Regulatory, and Food Safety Concerns, is available from The Heartland Institute for $12. The table of contents of the book, containing 211 topics, can be viewed at