- Meat and Poultry
- Fish and Shellfish
- Cream and Cream Products
- Eggs and Egg Whites
- Ice Cream
- Dairy Spreads
- Fruit, Fruit Products
- Sauces, Dressing, and Dips
- Condiments, Herbs & Spices, Spreads
- Ingredients for Cooking
- Prepared Foods
- Bakery Goods and Sweets
- Grains, Pasta, and Cereal
- FAQs on Bacteria
- What are bacteria?
- How can I avoid getting sick from a bacterial illness?
- How dangerous is a staph infection?
- Can I assume that if food smells bad its unsafe to eat and if it smells ok that it is safe to eat?
- How dangerous is botulism?
- How dangerous is listeria?
- How many types of bacteria are there?
- What foods are likely to be contaminated by listeria?
- What foods can give a person a staph infection?
- What foods can give a person botulism?
- Why do some bacteria make people sick?
- Why does refrigeration keep bacteria from multiplying?
- Can I avoid all contact with bacteria if I’m careful?
- How Many Bacteria Does It Take to Cause Illness?
- FAQs on Cookware
- Are Ceramic and Enamel Cookware Safe and Practical?
- Are Nonstick Coatings on Cookware a Health Risk?
- Do Cast Iron, Glass, Copper, and Titanium Cookware Have Any Disadvantages?
- Does Using Aluminum Cookware Increase the Chances of Developing Alzheimer’s Disease?
- Is Stainless Steel Cookware a Good Choice?
- Is the New Silicone Rubberized Cookware Safe?
- Nonstick Cookware: Is it Dangerous?
- What Brands of Cookware are Recommended by Experts?
- What Features Should I Look for When Selecting Cookware?
- What Should I Know about Selecting and Using Aluminum Cookware?
- FAQs about Definitions
- Exactly what is meant by the phrase perishable food?
- Defining Some Current Language about Food
- What Does the Word “Foodie” Mean? It Depends Who(m) You Ask
- What do “sell by,” “best by/before,” “use by” and “expiration” mean?
- What does the term shelf life mean?
- What's in Our Food? Maybe Processing Aids, Maybe not
- “Fresh,” “Natural,” “Processed”—What Do These Words Mean?
- FAQs on Dropped Food
- FAQs on Farmers' Markets
- Exactly what defines a farmers’ market?
- Farmers' Markets: Why They're So Popular; How to Find One Near Your Home
- How should I handle produce at home?
- What foods are sold with restrictions at a farmers’ market?
- What should I bring to the farmers’ market?
- What shouldn’t I do or eat at a farmers’ market?
- What signs indicate a sanitary farmers’ market?
- What time of day is it best to go to a farmers’ market?
- FAQs on Food-borne Illness and Mishandling of Food
- About how many cases of food-borne illness occur in the U.S. each year?
- Answer Key to “How Much Do You Know about Safe Handling of Food?”
- How Much Do You Know about Safe Handling of Food?
- I Left It Out Too Long! Can I Still Eat It?
- Should Your Grocery Card Track Food-Borne Illnesses?
- Sudden, Awful Intestinal Distress--Is it the Flu or a Foodborne Illness--or Both?
- What YOU Can Do to Avoid Food-borne Illness
- What does the phrase food-borne illness refer to?
- FAQs on Food Product Dating
- Are stores required, by law, to remove outdated items from their shelves?
- Do most consumers actually pay attention to the dating on foods?
- Does the “use by” date matter once the product is frozen?
- Is information on food longevity and safety available by phone?
- What are expiration dates?
- What do the terms closed dating and open dating mean?
- What if there is no date on a product, and I don’t remember if I bought it a month ago or ten years ago?
- What should consumers know about food product dating?
- When Did You Buy It? When Did You Open It?
- Who establishes these product dates?
- Who requires and regulates dating on foods?
- Why do “best by” and “use by” dates sometimes seem conservative?
- FAQs on Food Safety
- "Is It Safe To….?" FAQs Answered by our Advisory Board
- FAQs about Ground Beef, Seasonings, Olive Oil, Lemon Wedges, and Fish
- FAQs about Mushrooms: Are they Very Dirty or Very Clean?
- FAQs about Soft Cheeses--What's Safe, What Isn't
- FAQs on Food Safety and Nutrition
- FAQs on Raw Fruits and Veggies—the Answers Can Protect Your Wallet and Your Health
- Food/Meat Thermometers—What You Need to Know
- How Long Should Cheese Be Aged? Will the Rules Be Changed?
- How Long Will They REALLY Last? Part I: Non-perishables
- How Long Will They REALLY last? Part II: Perishables
- Imported Foods—What’s Safe, What’s Risky?
- Is It Safe? Is It Nutritious? More Survey Answers from Scientists
- Is It Time to Switch to Pasteurized Eggs?
- Is the Food Safety Modernization Act Making Our Food Supply Safer?
- More FAQs about Minimum Safe Cooking Temperatures: Pork and Other Perishables
- Sushi: Why Such a Short Shelf Life?
- Winter Food Storage—Can I leave It in the Car or in the Garage?
- Would You—Should You—Do You--Eat Irradiated Food?
- FAQs on Food Wrapping
- Are any plastic wraps or containers really “microwave safe”?
- Are some plastic wraps more effective than others?
- Can I refrigerate meat and poultry in its store wrapping?
- Can I use plastic freezer bags to store produce in the fridge?
- Can chemicals leach unto food from plastic wrap or containers?
- Do coated plastic bags really help produce last longer?
- Does aluminum foil give foods a metallic taste?
- Does exposure to aluminum cause Alzheimer’s disease?
- Everything You Need to Know about Wrapping Food Right
- How should fruits be wrapped before refrigeration?
- Is it safe to use aluminum foil in a microwave oven?
- Should I wrap raw vegetables loosely or tightly before refrigerating?
- What are some advantages and disadvantages of aluminum foil?
- What produce needs to be wrapped before refrigerating?
- What’s better for wrapping food—plastic or aluminum foil?
- Why does foil sometimes darken, discolor, and leave black specks on food?
- Will a foil cover help keep foods on the table hot or cold?
- FAQs on Freezing Food
- FAQs on Leftovers
- FAQs on Mold
- What is mold?
- Does mold ever grow on nonperishable food?
- Can I remove a moldy part from food and eat the rest?
- About how many different kinds of molds are there?
- How can I avoid getting mold on my refrigerated food?
- Is mold always visible?
- Are any molds harmless?
- What food groups are most susceptible to mold?
- What kinds of illnesses can result from eating moldy food?
- What kind of packaging protects foods from mold?
- What other safety tips will help prevent mold from growing?
- Why are some molds dangerous?
- FAQs on Organic Food
- What Is Organic Food?
- Are Organic Methods More Humane to Animals?
- Does Conventional Food Have a Longer Shelf Life Than Organic?
- Does Organic Food Taste Better than Conventional Food?
- Is Organic Food More Nutritious Than Conventional Food?
- Is Organically Grown Food Better for the Environment?
- What Do the Various Organic Labels Mean?
- What Important Contributions Has the Organic Movement Made?
- Which Are Safer: Organic or Conventional Food Products?
- Will Organic Baby Food Make Baby Healthier?
- FAQs on Oxidation: How It Affects Foods
- FAQs about Plastic Products Used with Food
- Pyrex® Glassware: Is it safe to use?
- Are plastic bags safe to use in the microwave?
- Are some plastic wraps safer and/or more effective than others?
- Are there any health risks from reusing plastic water bottles by refilling them with tap water?
- Are we eating chemicals from plastics along with our food?
- Can I microwave food in my plastic containers?
- Does the plastic used in water bottles pose a health risk?
- If I heat food in an open can, will that cause the plastic lining to leach chemicals into the food?
- Is it safe to heat frozen entrées in their plastic containers and with their plastic wrap?
- Is it safe to use plastic wrap as a covering when microwaving food?
- Is it safe to wash and dry plastic plates, cups, containers, and utensils in the dishwasher?
- Is there good evidence that BPA is harmful to human health?
- Of the plastic products used to store, heat, or eat with (wraps, bags, containers, silverware, plates, etc.), which contain BPA?
- What is BPA?
- Why is so much of today’s food packaged in plastic?
- FAQs on Preservatives
- What are Preservatives?
- All things considered, is our food supply safer or less safe because of preservatives?
- Are the preservatives in hot dogs and similar products health risks?
- What preservatives are known to cause allergic reactions?
- What are some common preservatives used in food?
- What food groups commonly have preservatives in them?
- Why are preservatives added to food?
- Will the label on the product tell me if it contains a preservative?
- FAQs on Washing Produce: Why and How
- Other FAQs
- Can chicken soup really cure a cold?
- Is Chocolate Good For You?
- Can Science and Technology Help You Save Food Dollars?
- FAQs Answered By Our Board Scientists: on Chickens, Bananas, Old Salad Dressing, and More
- FAQs about Food Price Increases
- FAQs about Products We Use with Food
- FAQs about Shelf Life: Tortillas, Pancakes, Wine, and More
- Food Fraud: Are you paying for scallops and getting shark meat?
- Is Cheese Addictive? Only If You Eat It
- Nine FAQs about Food Labels
- Quiz Yourself! Check Your Knowledge about Food Temperatures
- Scientists Answer Two FAQs about Egg Safety
- Some Shelf Life Info, General and Specific (Spirits, Defrosted Veggies, Green Tea, and More)
- Syrup from a Tree or from a Lab--Which Should You Pour on Your Pancakes?
- Ten FAQs about the Prickly Pineapple
- What's New in Food? IFT Expo Offers Tasty Innovations
- What's on the Menu in Cuba?
- What’s in My Water? Answers to FAQs
- FAQs on Bacteria
- Books: Food for Thought
- Food Safety
- It Says "Use By Tomorrow," But You Don't Have To
- Ten Tips for Consumer Food Safety
- Food Allergies: Recognizing and Controlling Them
- “Is It Spoiled?” When in Doubt, Check It Out
- How To Keep Your Cooler Cool
- Recent Recalls: Salmonella Threatens 100s of Products
- STOP! Don’t Rinse That Raw Chicken!
- Sous Vide—A Better Way to Cook?
- Why You Need a Safe Cooking Temperature Chart and How to Get One Right Now
- “Myth-information” about Food Safety: You’d Better Not Believe It
- After The Storm: What You Can Save and What You Must Throw Out
- How to Protect Your Food During a Power Outage
- Meet Your Beef--Via Bar Code Info
- Organic Food, GMOs, the Safety of American Food, the Value of Use-By Dates, and More--Scientists Tell Us What They Think
- Raw chicken, Leftovers, Deli Meats, and More-- What Surveyed Scientists Said
- Tips About 4 Popular Beverages: Wine, Coffee, Water, and Soda
- Tips on Water Safety During and After a Storm
- Introducing our Advisory Board Scientists
- Produce: Handling Tips
- Seasonal Tips
- A Novel Method for Cooking a Turkey
- Crock Pot Cooking Tips for that Ideal Winter Dinner
- Cucumbers: for Cool--and "Cool"--Summer Treats
- Going Away for All or Part of the Winter? Prepare Your Kitchen for your Absence
- How To Grill Safely During the Summer
- How do summer squash and winter squash differ?
- New Year’s Resolutions For a Safer Kitchen
- Preserve the Taste of Summer by Canning—But Do It Safely
- Summer Food Fests Offer Much More than Calories
- Summer Party Tips: Baby Carrots (Using for Dips) Hot Dogs (Ditching the Guilt), and Watermelon (Finding a Ripe One)
- Tailgating: How to Do It Right
- Tips on Keeping Your Summer Fruits Flavorful and Healthy
- Shelf Life Tips
- Tips for Carry-along Lunches for Work and School
- Tips for Freezing Food and Freezer Care
- Cooking Frozen Foods
- Freezers And Food Safety
- Freezers And Freezer Burn
- Freezers And Nutrient Retention
- How Often Should You Defrost And Clean Your Freezer?
- How To Defrost And Clean Your Freezer
- How To Defrost Frozen Foods
- How To Freeze Foods: The Quicker The Better
- How To Wrap Foods For The Freezer
- Refreezing Frozen Foods
- What You Can Freeze And What You Can't--Or Shouldn't
- Tips About Genetically Engineered Foods
- Tips for Grocery Shopping
- Tips for Holidays
- Answers to Questions about Thanksgiving Dinner
- Chocolate Is Even More Healthful Than You Thought
- Enjoy St. Patrick’s Day Without Cabbage Stink
- Everything You Need to Know about Cranberry Sauce
- Halloween Treats Even Parents Will Love
- Kitchen Gifts that Really Please
- Kitchen Gifts that Really Work
- Spring Celebrations: What’s on Your Menu?
- Suggestions for Handling Your Child’s “Trick or Treat” Treasures
- Tips for Winter Holiday Meals
- What NOT to Do With Thanksgiving Dinner
- Yikes! The Turkey Is Done, But the Guests Are Delayed! How Do I Keep My Thanksgiving Dinner Warm?
- Tips on Kitchen Equipment
- Tips for Refrigerating Food and Refrigerator Care
- Food Safety Facts
- How To Clean The Refrigerator
- How To Wrap Foods For Refrigeration
- How long can a pie be left unrefrigerated?
- Power Outage? Here’s What to Do with All That Food in the Fridge
- Proper Handling Of Produce In The Crisper(s)
- Proper Refrigeration Placement Of Raw Meat, Chicken, And Fish
- Six Tips for Extending the Shelf Life of Foods
- What Can and Can't Go In The Fridge Door
- Other Tips
- Microwave Cooking
- The 10 Most Dangerous Foods To Consume While Driving
- Are Your Kids Home Alone after School? Educate Them about Snacking
- Clever Inventions That Can Change Eating Habits
- Coffee, Juice, and Food in Central America
- Eggies™ to the Rescue?
- Ever Eaten “Glued” Food?
- Food Definitions: Umami, Locavore, Fruit, Heirloom, and Artisan
- Hot Dogs: What You Should Know about Them
- If You Don't Know Beans about Beans...
- In Defense of Processed Food
- Kids and Cooking: A Good Combo
- New Uses for Old Food: Try 'Em Out!
- Organic Farming and Organic Food: What Are the Benefits?
- Portabella Mushrooms and Their Relatives: How to Handle Them
- Ten Exotic Fruits: Novel Treats to Drink and Eat
- Tofu: Water Regularly, Consume Promptly
- What This Site Is All About and How to Navigate It
- What We're Eating This Year: Ancient Grains, Coconut Oil, Kale, and More
- About Us
- In the News
Would You—Should You—Do You--Eat Irradiated Food?
A cheerful, optimistic scientist took me on a tour of his research lab, where he housed many lively chickens, all of whom seemed to be thriving on a diet of irradiated food. They’d been eating it for about 2 years and were in good health and producing normal offspring. I left the lab thinking that irradiated food—with almost no pathogens and a longer shelf life than untreated food—would be the wave of the future. At that time, I was a student journalist at the University of Michigan (in Ann Arbor). The year was 1954. Now, more than 50 years later, less than 1% of the food Americans eat is irradiated. Would we be better off if that percentage were higher? If so, why are we shying away from this technology? I asked our site’s Advisory Board scientists, as well as my computer, the answers to these and related questions. Their responses follow.
What is food irradiation?
It’s a process by which foods that are approved for the procedure are briefly exposed to a controlled amount of radiant energy, primarily in order to kill germs and extend shelf life. There are three ways this can be done: with gamma rays, electron beams, and x-rays. The FDA has found this technology to be safe. No matter which method is used, there is no chance that the food will become radioactive. The food does not come into direct contact with radioactive material, only with its energy. “For example, when the source of an electron beam is shut off, the energy disappears,” explains food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter. (For details about the irradiation process, click here.)
What are the benefits of subjecting food to irradiation?
- According to the USDA, “Irradiation is an important food safety tool in fighting foodborne illness.” Irradiation reduces (to almost zero) the numbers of germs that may be present in food. When astronauts are traveling in space, they are given only irradiated food to be sure that they do not develop foodborne illnesses. Hospitals sometimes serve irradiated food to patients with a compromised immune system. Irradiation could be an especially valuable tool for protecting public health now that there is life-threatening danger from some antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have been found in contaminated food. Irradiation could eliminate the risk of Listeria from hot dogs and deli meats and the risk of Salmonella in animal feed and grains. It would be a smart precaution for people with weakened immune systems to switch to irradiated meat, poultry, and produce if irradiated versions of these foods were easily available and not too costly.
- “Rare meat and even steak tartare (raw ground beef) would be much safer to eat if it had been irradiated,” says food scientist Dr. Karin Allen. Irradiation at the slaughter plant could eliminate bacteria commonly found in these animal products, says the CDC.
- Like freezing, canning, and drying, irradiation can extend the shelf life of foods. It can reduce spoilage, inhibit ripening, and slow down sprouting. (Spoilage is caused by bacteria that ruin the taste, smell, and/or appearance of food.) According to food scientists at Clemson University, “Irradiated strawberries stay unspoiled in the refrigerator for up to three weeks as compared to three to four days for untreated strawberries.” Irradiation also slows down the sprouting of potatoes.
- Irradiation could eliminate insect pests and thereby replace fumigation with toxic chemicals that are routinely used on many foods now.
What are the limitations of irradiation?
Although irradiation kills most bacteria, parasites, insects, and fungi, it does not kill bacterial toxins which cause botulism. However, studies have shown that spoilage organisms (which make food taste, smell, and/or look bad) should alert consumers to discard the food before these toxins can develop. “Viruses are, in general, resistant to irradiation at doses approved for foods,” says the CDC. Irradiation is also ineffective on BSE (commonly called mad cow disease).
Could I be using irradiated products without knowing it?
Irradiated food sold directly to consumers (and there is very little of this in the U.S.) must be labeled with the international symbol called a “radura” (see photo) and the words “treated with radiation” or “treated by radiation.”
A few stores have sold irradiated food since the ‘90s. A few restaurants have offered it. However, consumers who want to purchase it may have a hard time finding any. Therefore, your consumption of irradiated products is probably limited to spices and dried herbs. Many are irradiated. No symbol or wording is required on the container. Food process engineer Timothy Bowser explains why spices and herbs are commonly irradiated: “They are known to contain heavy levels of contamination, and they can be difficult to clean. (You can’t effectively wash a cinnamon stick in water without ruining it, and chemical treatments have many issues.) Spices are grown largely outside of the U.S., where they may be exposed to unsanitary handling.” Note: irradiation is not allowed on organic herbs and spices. McCormick uses ethylene oxide gas rather than irradiation.
Though most consumers don’t know this, irradiation is used on many non-edible drugstore items, such as band-aids, eye drops, and feminine hygiene products.
Are there any health risks from irradiating food?
Government organizations and the scientists on our Advisory Board do not believe that there is any significant risk from irradiated food, irradiation facilities, or the nuclear waste resulting from the process. The morbidity and mortality from contaminated food is of far greater concern than any risks from irradiating food. Animal studies lasting several generations have been performed on several species (including mice, rats, and dogs) with no evidence of harm to the subjects.
Food process engineer Dr. Tim Bowser discusses the safety of the irradiation facilities: “I believe that the risks are minimal because the industry has a long history, and they have been very careful to use huge safety factors in their designs. Also, amounts of radioactive materials are virtually insignificant when compared to a nuclear power plant.” Furthermore, the food given to astronauts on flights is irradiated to the point of sterilization, and no ill effects have been detected.
Does irradiation have any adverse effects upon the quality of the food?
The CDC says that, although irradiation slightly warms the food, it does only minimal damage to taste and nutritional value. Some consumers may notice a slight off-taste with some products.
Still, Dr. Bowser points out that there may be some disadvantages: “When ionizing particles or photons are properly applied to a food product, they can damage the DNA of a microorganism, ruining it beyond repair. (This is what we want to happen to pathogens and spoilage organisms.) Unfortunately, there are also effects on the food product. You might think of the irradiation process as shooting tiny laser beams into and through a food product. The lasers don’t do much to the food except perforate it and cause some physical damage, but if a bacteria living on the food was perforated or poked by the laser, it would cease to function properly and die. The question is this: is the physical damage to the food product tolerable for the advantage gained? In some foods (like dried spices and pet foods), I think so. However, I am convinced that irradiation is not an advantage for all food products.” The CDC confirms this last point, saying that, for example, the quality of shellfish is severely damaged by irradiation.
What edible products have been approved for irradiation by U.S. governmental agencies?
Since 1963, many products have been approved including white flour, white potatoes, pork, tea, produce, herbs and spices, poultry, and meat. However, products actually being irradiated for consumption in the U.S. are mostly spices and herbs, small amounts of meat and poultry, and pet food.
Why has irradiation had difficulty getting general acceptance in the U.S.?
Dr. Allen explains the two main reasons: fear and expense. Food suppliers are reluctant to have their products irradiated because they believe consumer distrust—concern about safety—would keep them from buying these items. Also, at the present time, irradiating products can be costly. “It’s not the procedure itself that’s expensive,” says Allen. “It’s the shipping involved. There are only about 100 irradiator facilities in the U.S. Sometimes food has to be shipped to one of these and then shipped back to the distributor. Until there is more consumer demand and acceptance, it doesn’t pay for companies to irradiate food.” At present, the cost is passed on to consumers; irradiated ground beef costs 5-10¢ a pound more, says. Dr. Cutter.
Why is irradiation used more in other countries than in the U.S.?
In 37 countries, more than 40 foods are irradiated. In some European countries, irradiation has been used for decades. A list of countries using radiation includes the following: France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Israel, Thailand, Russia, China, and South Africa.
Dr. Bowser feels there’s less need of it in the United States: “The U.S. has a very ‘clean’ food supply that comes from fields that are not fertilized or contaminated with human waste or sewage. We also have a fantastic food distribution system that is rapid and includes refrigeration. The U.S. also has well-developed and accepted methods of food product preservation (such as canning, dehydration, and freezing) that move irradiation to the fringe of consideration for mainstream product preservation.”
Will irradiated food be more available to consumers in the U.S. in the future?
Here is Dr. Bowser’s opinion: “I think the future of irradiation in the U.S. for human-consumed food is somewhat bleak. The catastrophe in Japan has delivered a global setback to irradiation and nuclear industry overall. [Other nuclear disasters have had this same effect.] On the other hand, irradiation is important in the medical/pharmaceutical industry and is quickly becoming important in the pet, animal, and zoo food industries.”
How can the American public encourage greater use of food irradiation?
Education may be the key. According to the CDC, in marketing tests of specific foods, 50% of consumers indicated a willingness to buy irradiated food, and, when they were educated about the benefits of irradiation, the number of willing users rose to 80%. If enough consumers tell supermarket store managers, restaurant owners, food manufacturers and distributors, and members of Congress that they want irradiated food, it may eventually appear in more supermarkets and restaurants.
Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences
Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science
cdc.gov (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) “Food Irradiation”
clemson.edu (Clemson University Cooperative Extension) “Food Irradiation”
usda.gov “Irradiation and Food Safety, Answers to Frequently Asked Questions”
physics.isu.edu (Idaho State University) “Food Irradiation: Ten Most Commonly Asked Questions About Food Irradiation”