Food irradiation

Irradiating food has the same benefits as when it is heated, refrigerated, frozen or treated with chemicals, but without changing the temperature or leaving residues. The technique controls spoilage and food-borne pathogenic micro-organisms or insect pests without significantly affecting taste or smell.

After many years of research and the development of domestic and international standards, more than 60 countries worldwide have regulations allowing the use of irradiation for one or more food products. Irradiation destroys disease-causing bacteria and reduces the risk of food borne illnesses. While it need not sterilise the food – it is still necessary to handle and cook the food properly - irradiation maintains it as “clean” and inhibits spoilage, making it possible to keep food longer, while ensuring a higher level of safety and quality. Irradiation is also a viable pest control method, providing phytosanitary security for traded fresh produce by preventing insects and other pests from developing and reproducing. Indeed, it is this capacity to control pests, including those of quarantine significance, which has led many countries to introduce irradiation applications.

The IAEA, together with the FAO, aims to strengthen Member States’ national capacities in applying irradiation for food safety and quality. The two organizations are also working closely with the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) and the Codex Alimentarius Commission to harmonize worldwide irradiation standards.

Food irradiation standards support international trade

Irradiation has become widely accepted as a proven and effective post-harvest treatment to reduce bacterial contamination, slow spoilage and maintain food quality. It prevents premature sprouting and ripening, and acts as a phytosanitary treatment to control insect pests in fruits and vegetables. Food irradiation involves ionizing radiation and uses X-rays, gamma rays or high-energy electron beams.

In 2003, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a body established by the FAO and the World Health Organization in 1963 to develop harmonised international food standards, published two landmark documents in the field of food irradiation: the Codex General Standard for Irradiated Foods and the Recommended International Code of Practice for Radiation Processing of Food.

Other important documents, developed by the IAEA together with the FAO and the IPPC, are the Guidelines for the Use of Irradiation as a Phytosanitary Measure and the Phytosanitary Treatments for Regulated Pests, the second of which includes fifteen irradiation treatments for thirteen specific insect pests, one for all fruit flies and one for three types of mealybugs. These protocols are the basis of trade agreements and are opening new market opportunities by helping producers meet increasingly rigorous quarantine requirements against invasive pests. International trade in several varieties of irradiated fruit and vegetables is taking place in the Americas and the Asia and the Pacific regions.

However, important gaps remain, and “generic treatments” need to be developed against broad-pest categories to give new options for protecting agricultural production and opening avenues for increased commerce. Trends towards more specific food safety and control systems also need to be addressed, especially of machine generated irradiation technologies to provide effective means to ensure food quality, and minimize losses and waste without relying on radionuclide sources, while addressing consumer concerns related to the use of ionizing radiation.