Food irradiation means improving the shelf life and safety of food products by passing the packaged food items through gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams. This process helps in eliminating the microorganisms like bacteria and mould within the packaged food product thus reducing the risk of food borne illnesses. It does not affect the other attributes of food like taste, smell or texture. Since food does not come in direct contact with radioactive materials, there is no risk of radiation and is completely safe for consumers.

So does irradiation really work? Irradiation of food serves many purposes. It effectively eliminates disease causing pathogens like E.coli and Salmonella thus minimizing risk of food borne illnesses. It improves shelf life by destroying decay causing organisms. It kills insects in fruits and vegetables thus reducing the need for pesticides. It can be used for delaying or inhibiting sprouting thus prolonging shelf life. It can be used for food sterilization. Sterilized foods can be stored for a long period of time without refrigeration. They are used especially in hospitals for patients needing special diets. For example patients suffering from AIDS with reduced immunity or patients undergoing chemotherapy.

A common question that arises is how safe is food irradiation? After more than 30 years of trails the FDA has endorsed it to be safe in the US. It is also supported by WHO, CDC and US Department of Agriculture. However different countries have different regulations on food categories which can be irradiated. In most European countries, it is restricted to certain spices and herbs in limited doses however in Latin American countries like Brazil almost all food categories can be eligible for irradiation. A variety of foods have been approved for irradiation in the US including poultry, pork, beef, fresh vegetables, fruits, lettuce, spinach, crustaceans, shellfish, shell eggs, seeds for sprouting, spices, seasonings. So basically this list covers most of the common food types. Of all the above mentioned, spices are a potential microbial pollution source to the foodstuffs to which they are added. Mostly originating in developing countries, where harvesting and storage conditions are insufficiently controlled, spices may be exposed to high level of natural contaminants. It is unanimously confirmed that spice irradiation is more effective in controlling bacteria and mould as compared to heat or chemical treatments. Harmful bacteria could also contaminate poultry feed which in turn might infect the birds and through them infect humans. Irradiating poultry and meat products helps in reducing food borne illnesses. Same applies to insects contaminating fruits and vegetables.

Another question that frequently arises is, are irradiated foods equally nutritious? The answer is a resounding yes. Since there is negligible rise in food temperature during irradiation, there is hardly any change in the texture or flavor. A small percentage of vitamins might be lost in this process however the proportion of loss is similar to any process like freezing, canning or cooking. For more interesting read on food irradiation please check