New provisions permitting the irradiation of fresh fruit and vegetables as a means of controlling the spread of insect pests like fruit fly across our quarantine borders were gazetted in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Code) on 22 July 2021. This follows FSANZ's May 2021 approval of an application by the Queensland Government Department of Agriculture and Fisheries to irradiate all types of fresh fruit and vegetables as a phytosanitary (pest control) measure.
For more information about this application see:
- Application A1193 - irradiation as a phytosanitary measure for all fresh fruit and vegetables
- Irradiation of fruit and vegetables
What is food irradiation?
When food is irradiated, it's exposed to ionising radiation, either from gamma rays, a high-energy electron beam or x-rays. These rays are similar to microwaves. They pass through the food just like in a microwave, but don't heat it up to any significant extent.
Irradiated food is not radioactive and you can't get sick from eating it - it is as safe and healthy as non-irradiated food.
In Australia and New Zealand, the main technological purpose for using ionising radiation is to control the spread of pests like fruit fly. In other countries it can also be used to kill dangerous bacteria and microorganisms that cause food poisoning, like Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli, or as a way to prolong shelf life.
Irradiation has been used as a way to keep food safe since the late 1950s and is one of the most extensively studied methods of food processing. Research from around the world has continually shown that it is safe. It has been thoroughly examined by FSANZ and other food safety agencies internationally, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and most recently the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Irradiation at the levels allowed in the Code won't change the taste, texture or appearance of food. Any changes to the nutritional quality of treated food will be minimal. In fact, any changes made by irradiation are so minor that it is not easy to tell if a food has been irradiated.
Labelling of irradiated food
Any food that has been irradiated, or contains irradiated ingredients, must be labelled that it has been treated with ionising radiation. This requirement applies to packaged and unpackaged irradiated foods.
If the food is not normally required to be individually labelled - like fresh fruit and vegetables - then the labelling must be displayed close to the food.
Regulation of irradiated food
Before food can be irradiated it must be approved by us. We do a safety assessment based on best practice, internationally accepted risk analysis principles that looks at:
- the technological need for the treatment
- the safety of the treatment
- effects on food composition
- any changes to the nutritional quality of the food.
We don't allow irradiation to be used to clean up food that is already unsafe or unsuitable for human consumption.
What foods can be irradiated In Australia and New Zealand?
In Australia and New Zealand, irradiation is approved for use on fresh fruit and vegetables, plus herbs and spices (and herbal infusions). Fresh fruit and vegetables can only be irradiated to treat for pests. Herbs and spices (and herbal infusions) can be irradiated to treat for pests, to control sprouting and weeds and for bacterial decontamination.
The permissions we have in place, including the level of ionising radiation that can be used, apply to these foods whether or not they have been grown domestically or imported from other countries.