Food irradiation for food safety

More than 60 countries worldwide allow the irradiation of various foods. International organizations such as the World Health Organization recognize irradiation as a safe and effective way of reducing disease-causing organisms in food, while preserving its nutritional qualities. In the past decade, the major growth area is for fruits and vegetables that are irradiated to prevent the spread of pests.

In Canada, fresh and frozen ground beef is irradiated. Health Canada has determined that ground beef treated with irradiation is safe to eat and retains its nutritional value, taste, texture and appearance.

A word about the reasons for ground beef irradiation

Following the largest recall of beef products in Canadian history, the Independent Expert Advisory Panel that reviewed the 2012 XL Foods Inc. recall made several recommendations to strengthen the food safety system, including that the beef industry should submit a proposal to Health Canada to permit irradiation as an effective food safety intervention. Health Canada subsequently received a submission from industry and, following a scientific review of the submission, is proposing to authorize the irradiation of fresh and frozen raw ground beef to reduce the level of harmful bacteria.

What is food irradiation?

Food irradiation (the application of ionizing radiation to food) is a technology that improves the safety and extends the shelf life of foods by reducing or eliminating microorganisms and insects.

Irradiation has several benefits to food safety, including reducing the level of bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter. It can also prevent premature food spoilage.

It is an optional tool that can be used by the food industry on certain foods to enhance their safety. Irradiation is meant to complement, not replace, existing food safety processing standards and practices, such as appropriate handling, sanitation and storage.

Irradiation is used in food processing for several reasons:

  • To prevent food poisoning: by reducing the level of harmful microorganisms such as Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Campylobacter and parasites which can cause foodborne diseases.
  • To prevent spoilage: by reducing the microbial load on foods, meaning it destroys bacteria, molds and yeast which cause food to spoil, and controls insect and parasite infestation.
  • To increase shelf life: by slowing the ripening or sprouting in fresh fruits and vegetables, thereby allowing for longer shelf life.

Irradiation is approved in Canada to treat potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, spices and seasoning preparations. Irradiation has also been used as a sterilization technique for medical supplies, food packaging materials and cosmetic ingredients for many years.

Consumer demand for irradiated food is low

Because consumer demand for irradiated food is low, reducing the spoilage between manufacture and consumer purchase and reducing the risk of foodborne illness is currently not sufficient incentive for most manufacturers to supplement their process with irradiation. Nevertheless, food irradiation does take place commercially and volumes are in general increasing at a slow rate, even in the European Union where all member countries allow the irradiation of dried herbs spices and vegetable seasonings but only a few allow other foods to be sold as irradiated.

Canadian food irradiation regulations

Food irradiation is strictly regulated under the Food and Drug Regulations. Division 26 (Part B) of these Regulations includes a table that lists the foods that may be irradiated and sold in Canada. The table identifies the permitted types and sources of ionizing radiation, the purpose of treatment, and the permitted absorbed dose of ionizing radiation. Labelling requirements for irradiated foods are set out in Division 1 (Part B) of the Regulations.

Irradiated food labeling

All irradiated foods must be clearly labeled. Packages must display both a written description as well as a distinctive symbol, the Radura, to show a food has been treated with ionizing radiation.

Is it safe to eat irradiated food?

Several national expert groups and two international expert groups evaluated the available data and concluded that any food at any dose is wholesome and safe to consume.

Can irradiated food become radioactive?

No. Irradiation of food by gamma-rays, x-rays or high energy electrons under the approved conditions does not cause food to become radioactive. Additionally, in the process, the food does not come into contact with the radioactive source and therefore cannot become contaminated. In the case of machine sources used to irradiate foods (accelerators generating electrons or machines generating X-rays), the Food and Drug Regulations places upper limits on the energy levels that may be used for treatment of foods, such that the food cannot become radioactive. No radioactive energy (waves) remains in the food after treatment.


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