FDA’s Position: Irradiation does not make foods radioactive, just as an airport luggage scanner does not make luggage radioactive. Nor does it cause harmful chemical changes. The process may cause a small loss of nutrients but no more so than with other processing methods such as cooking, canning, or heat pasteurization. Federal rules require irradiated foods to be labeled as such to distinguish them from non-irradiated foods.

The radiant energy used in the irradiation process is very short light waves with extremely high energy (gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams). The energy is emitted from machines that produce electron beams (linear accelerators, or e-beam machines) or X-rays, or from radioactive materials like cobalt-60 or cesium-137 that emit gamma rays.

The e-beam uses electricity, but when the e-beam comes in contact with metal, it forms x-rays. The new e-beam machine uses a linear accelerator to create a beam of electrons that bombard food with the equivalent of millions of chest X-rays. A linear accelerator uses different techniques to speed electrons up to 99% of the speed of light. This beam of extremely fast moving electrons passing through living matter collides with some molecules and leaves a trail of altered or broken molecules along with newly formed, chemically active ions and free radicals. (Free radicals are electrically neutral, but very chemically active atoms or molecular fragments.) The ions and free radicals may in turn break even more molecules, or create new molecules harmful to the cell. If the radiation passing through germ is strong enough, it will alter its DNA and make it unable to reproduce, or even will kill the cell. Note that this is exactly how a radiation therapy works for cancer patients – high level of radiation is directed onto the cancerous cells to kill them or render them unable to reproduce.

Irradiating food is not like exposing it to the volume of radiation in an airport luggage scanner or a regular X-ray. It is equivalent to 10 million to 150 million chest X-rays. Ten million — which is 100,000 “rads,” the unit that radiation is measured in — is what’s approved for fruit and vegetables, up to 150 million range is the approved dose for frozen meat products, which is 1,500,000 rads, and 1 billion, which is 10 million rads, is the approved dose for dried herbs and spices. And a chest X-ray is .01 rad.

Let me ask you this: Is a hamburger, that has been irradiated with the equivalent of 150 million chest x-rays, sprinkled with spices that have been treated with the equivalent of 1 billion chest x-rays safe for human consumption? Despite the FDA’s assurance the answer is NO. Here are the facts:

  • Since 1983, FDA agency officials have knowingly and systematically ignored federal regulations and their own testing protocols that must be followed before irradiated food can legally be approved for human consumption.
  • Since 1986, FDA officials have legalized irradiation for several major classes of food while relying on nearly 80 scientific studies that the agency’s own expert scientists had dismissed as “deficient.” (The FDA legalized the irradiation of eggs in July, for instance, based on three “deficient” studies, one of which was conducted in 1959.)
  • None of the seven key scientific studies that FDA officials used to legitimize their first major approval of food irradiation in 1986 met modern standards. (One of them had actually been declared “deficient” by FDA toxicologists; three others had never been translated into English.)
  • FDA officials have systematically dismissed evidence suggesting that irradiated food can be toxic and induce genetic damage. Much of this evidence resulted from government-funded research submitted to the FDA and members of Congress as early as 1968.
  • Officials of the FDA, U.S. Army and other federal agencies have consistently misled Congress about the potential hazards of food irradiation, and about the reasons that past research initiatives have failed to demonstrate that irradiated food is safe for human consumption. [217]

Irradiation damages the quality of food.

Irradiation damages food by breaking up molecules and creating free radicals-highly reactive, powerful oxidant molecules responsible for many diseases and the aging process itself.  The free radicals bounce around in the food, damage vitamins and enzymes, and combine with existing chemicals (like pesticides) in the food to form new chemicals, called Unique Radiolytic Products (URPs). A 1977 study conducted for the Army discovered that of 65 chemical compounds found in irradiated beef, 35 did not naturally occur in this food, five did not naturally appear in any food, and 15 increased in concentration due to irradiation. The latter category included benzene, which has been branded a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. [218]

There is growing evidence that a new class of chemicals, formed during food irradiation, called cyclobutanones could be harmful. Cyclobutanones do not occur naturally anywhere on Earth. They were found to cause damage in rats, and genetic and cellular damage in human and rat cells. [219]

Irradiated foods lose 5%-95% of vitamins A, C, E, K or B complex.

That’s a big range, but foods vary greatly. Different foods lose different vitamins. For example, 95% of vitamin A is destroyed in chicken, 86% of vitamin B in oats, and 70 % of vitamin C in fruit juices. [220] Also, the amount of loss changes when the dose of irradiation or storage time is changed.

Irradiation damages the enzymes found in raw foods. This means our bodies must work harder to digest them.

Irradiation doesn’t kill all the bacteria in a food.

The ones that survive are by definition radiation-resistant. These bacteria will multiply and eventually work their way back to the ‘animal factories’. Eventually, the bacteria that contaminate the meat will no longer be killed by currently approved doses of irradiation. The technology will no longer be usable, while stronger bacteria contaminate our food supply. In a few hours at room temperature, the bacteria remaining in meat or poultry after irradiation can multiply to the level existing before irradiation. 100 Salmonella bacteria remaining in a food will multiply to 1 million after 6 hours in the human gastrointestinal tract. Irradiation does NOT protect you against food poisoning! Some bacteria, like the one that causes botulism, as well as viruses (such as Norwalk virus) and prions (which are believed to cause Mad Cow Disease) are not killed by current doses of irradiation or by doses that leave the food palatable. If the food is already spoiled when irradiated, killing the bacteria warning us with telltale odors about spoilage doesn’t remove the contamination. We just won’t be able to smell it.


Irradiation covers up problems that the meat and poultry industry should solve.

Irradiation covers up the increased fecal contamination that results from speeded up slaughter and decreased federal inspection, nor does it remove urine, pus, vomit and tumors often left on beef, chicken and lamb as the result of filthy and inhumane slaughterhouse conditions. Prodded by the industry, the USDA has allowed a transfer of inspection to company inspectors. Where government inspectors remain, they are not allowed to condemn meat and poultry now that they condemned 20 years ago.

Because of this deregulation, the meat and poultry industry since the ‘90s has lost money and suffered bad publicity from food-poisoning lawsuits and expensive product recalls. Irradiation is a “magic bullet” that will enable them to say that the product was “clean” when it left the packing plant.

An attempt to mask filthy conditions in slaughterhouses is one of the reasons the government promotes the irradiation so vigorously. The second reason is that we have plenty of used nuclear waste from weapon manufacturing. The Department of Energy (DoE) would be only too happy to see some of this waste recycled. Cesium-137 used in food irradiation is a major radionuclide in spent nuclear fuel, high-level radioactive wastes resulting from the processing of spent nuclear fuel, and radioactive wastes associated with the operation of nuclear reactors and fuel reprocessing plants. Cobalt-60 isotope is manufactured from cobalt-59 in a nuclear reactor. Both cobalt-60 and cesium-137 are deadly when improperly handled.

Food irradiation today remains as closely connected to the nuclear weapons and atomic energy as it did in 1953, when the U.S. Army began experimenting with food irradiation. The list of advocates for food irradiation has grown to include companies such as Titan, the defense contractor that is using Star Wars technology (in which lasers zap incoming missiles) to irradiate meat. Titan is following in the footsteps of the Atoms for Peace program by using military technology for a civilian purpose.

In 1959, the World Health Organization (WHO) signed an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, giving the IAEA “primary responsibility for encouraging, assisting and coordinating research on, and development and practical application of, atomic energy for peaceful purposes throughout the world.” So when the WHO endorses food irradiation, that was IAEA talking. IAEA folks are nuclear promoters and hardly health experts.

The government’s assertion that irradiated food is safe for human consumption does not even pass the laugh test.” Samuel S. Epstein, M.D. emeritus professor of environmental and occupational medicine at University of Illinois School of Public Health, Chicago.


The safety of irradiated food has not yet been proven.

The longest human feeding study was 15 weeks, in China. The data is not available in English. No one knows the health effects of a life-long diet that includes a large number of foods that can already be legally irradiated in the U.S., such as meat, chicken, vegetables, fruits, salads, eggs and sprouts.

There are no studies on the effects of feeding normal babies or children diets containing irradiated foods. A very small study from India on malnourished children showed health effects. In a human study done at the National Institute of Nutrition in India fifteen chronically malnourished children were divided into three groups of five and fed freshly irradiated wheat, stored irradiated wheat, and non-irradiated wheat. Four of five children, who ate the freshly irradiated wheat, developed strikingly abnormal white blood cells, a condition known as polyploidy, commonly associated with direct exposure to radiation. None of the control group showed these changes. The children who ate the stored irradiated wheat were in between.

Studies on animals fed irradiated foods have shown increased fatal internal bleeding, embryonal death in mice, tumors, reproductive failures and kidney damage. Some possible causes are: irradiation-induced vitamin deficiencies, the inactivity of enzymes in the food, DNA damage, and toxic radiolytic products in the food. Considerable amounts of radioactivity were present in the liver, kidney, stomach, gastrointestinal tract, and blood serum of rats fed irradiated sucrose solutions. Radioactivity was present in urine and feces samples. [221]

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March 2009, scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) report on cats developing severe neurological symptoms due to a degradation of myelin, the fatty insulator of nerve fibers called axons, induced by irradiated food the cats were fed for 3-4 months. Consequently, the cats developed severe neurological dysfunction, including movement disorders, vision loss and paralysis. Taken off the irradiated diet, the cats recovered slowly, but eventually all lost functions were restored.  

The FDA based its approval of irradiation for poultry on only seven of 441 animal-feeding studies submitted. Marcia van Gemert, Ph.D., the toxicologist who chaired the FDA committee that approved irradiation, later said, “These studies reviewed in the 1982 literature from the FDA were not adequate by 1982 standards, and are even less accurate by 1993 standards to evaluate the safety of any product, especially a food product such as irradiated food.”

The seven studies are not a good basis for approval of irradiation for humans, because they showed health effects on the animals or were conducted using irradiation at lower energies than those the FDA eventually approved.

The FDA based its approval of irradiation for fruits and vegetables on a theoretical calculation of the amount of URPs in the diet from one 7.5 oz. serving/day of irradiated food. Considering the different kinds of foods approved for irradiation, this quantity is too small and the calculation is irrelevant. Even with current labeling requirements, people cannot avoid eating irradiated food. That means there is no control group, and epidemiologists will never be able to determine if irradiated food has any health effects.

Because irradiated foods have not been proven safe for human health in the long term, prominent, conspicuous and truthful labels are necessary for all irradiated foods. Consumers should be able to easily determine if their food has been irradiated. Labels should also be required for irradiated ingredients of compound foods, and for restaurant and institutional foods.

Because irradiation depletes vitamins, labels should state the amount of vitamin loss after irradiation, especially for fresh foods that are usually eaten fresh. Consumers have the right to know if they are buying nutritionally impaired foods.


Current US labels are not sufficient to enable consumers to avoid irradiated food. Foods are labeled only to the first purchaser. Irradiated spices, herb teas and supplement ingredients, foods that are served in restaurants, schools, etc., or receive further processing, do not bear consumer labels. Labels are required only for irradiated foods sold whole (like a piece of fruit) or irradiated in the package (like chicken breasts). The radura, the international symbol of irradiation is required. When labeling is required at the consumer level there must be wording, either “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation”. For packaged foods, the wording does not need to be bigger than the smallest type on the ingredient label, or in any special colors or typeface. For bulk fruits or vegetables, the words must appear on a card or display (or on each piece of food), but no size is specified and there is no enforcement.

In Summer 2002, Congress created a loophole long sought by the meat and poultry industries. Companies that wish to use a term not approved by the FDA like “electronically pasteurized” or  cold pasteurized” on their labels can go over the FDA’s head and petition the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The Secretary can then allow them to use the term.


Which foods are approved for irradiation in the US?

·         Seeds that will be used for sprouting (like alfalfa and clover). The sprouts will NOT be labeled as irradiated unless they are also irradiated.

·         Beef, pork, lamb, poultry, fruits, vegetables, wheat, wheat flour, eggs in the shell, herbs, spices, dried vegetable seasonings.

·         Foods not yet requested for irradiation are: dairy (which is already pasteurized), dried legumes/beans and a few single-category foods like honey and coffee.

·         Bacon was approved for irradiation in 1963. The approval was rescinded in 1968 because animals fed irradiated bacon showed adverse health effects. These effects were probably due to fat oxidation (the fat becomes rancid quickly). The fact that fats become rancid quickly explains why nuts are not approved for irradiation in the U.S.

·         Organic foods cannot be irradiated. But the term “natural” for foods does not exclude irradiation. Some nutritional supplement ingredients like garlic are irradiated.


Possible additional foods that will be approved for irradiation in the U.S.:


·         The FDA is considering allowing irradiation for deli meats, frozen foods, prepared fresh foods (like prepackaged shredded carrots), and fresh juices. 

·         The FDA is considering allowing irradiation of crustaceans and mollusks.

·         The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is considering allowing irradiation for imported fruits and vegetables. The irradiation could be done in the U.S. or in the country of origin.

·         The FDA is reviewing comments on a food industry-sponsored proposal to allow foods processed with new technologies (e.g., filtration, high pressure) to be labeled as fresh.



Which companies are irradiating in the US: now and in the near future?


·         Currently using irradiation for meat/poultry: Huisken’s of Minnesota (ground beef, 22 states); Schwan’s home delivery (ground beef); Omaha Steaks; Perdue (Harvestland brand of chicken for food service, probably more); Tyson, IBP (now owned by Tyson) (ground beef), Excel (ground beef), Emmpak (ground beef), Colorado Boxed Beef (poultry); WW Johnson Meat Company (ground beef for the food service industry); the U.S. Department of Defense (ground beef and later chicken); Kenosha Beef International (ground beef; it supplies Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Target, A&W Restaurants, Dairy Queen, Hardee’s, and Hot’N Now Hamburgers); Nation’s Pride (chicken to restaurants and food service); Rochester Meat (ground beef products, portion cut steaks and pork, for the foodservice industry).

·         Currently using irradiation for non-meat foods: Some Hawaiian papayas (Hawaii Classics brand); some fruits and vegetables from Florida; spices, herb teas and supplement ingredients like garlic (unknown quantities).

·         Planning to use irradiation in the near future: Miami-based Bounty Fresh, an importer and national distributor of fresh fruits and vegetables; Hormel (refrigerated meat products, like hot dogs); United Food Group (Supreme Packing Co., Miller Beef, Moran’s Ground Beef) Los Angeles (ground beef products); American Foodservice Corporation, supplier for major U.S. fast food and casual dining chains including Burger King (fresh and frozen beef patties); Del Monte (products “packaged in glass or plastic,” probably salad mixes or cut-up fruit); Kraft ( ready-to-eat meat products); SCIS Food Services (ready-to-eat foods). SCIS operates numerous facilities for salad, bakery, side dish and entree production throughout the USA and Mexico, including the Orval Kent Food Company, Pennant Foods, La Francaise Bakery, Ozark Salad Company, Landau Foods and I&K Distributors.

·         Interested but not committed to using irradiation: Sizzler Restaurants; Wal-Mart (“case-ready” beef)

 Extracted from Organic Consumers Association Publication



The Chicago Media Watch report sums up the problems succinctly: “Food irradiation is totally unnecessary. Factory farms are a blight on the farming landscape and a source of intense bacterial and viral contamination. There are also the problems of potential accidental runoff into waterways and disposal of used radiation. We can reduce overcrowding. We can disinfect drinking water and control for flies.  Long overdue sanitation procedures would eliminate the need for the hazardous irradiation process.


We have completely non-toxic alternatives available today. Two examples: a new steam treatment can eliminate 99.99% of listeria in processed meat; feeding cattle hay for five days before slaughter can eliminate E.coli 0157 in their intestines. Yet, the corporate media trumpets the irradiation as a means to ensure safe food for the American public, ignoring conflicting scientific evidence.

Irradiation is just another step in the rush for profit as the nation’s food supply becomes more adulterated and contaminated. Children will be the most at risk as school cafeterias across the nation will soon serve irradiated food-at standards lower that those of a fast food restaurant.”


Food irradiation is regulated as a food additive in the U.S. and ionizing radiation is not the only food “addition” that raises health concerns.


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