Food irradiation is used in more than 50 countries to destroy bacteria and pests and to extend the shelf life of food.
Irradiation, which has been used to treat food since the late 1950s, provides processors with an alternative to chemical and heat treatments.
Research has shown that food irradiation is safe and effective. The process has been examined thoroughly by the World Health Organization; the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization; the European Community Scientific Committee for Food; the United States Food and Drug Administration; a United Kingdom House of Lords committee, and by our scientists.
How are foods permitted to be irradiated?
We must give permission before a food can be irradiated. Our assessments consider:
- the technological need for the treatment
- the safety of the treatment
- effects on food composition
- any effects on the nutritional quality of the food.
We don't allow irradiation to be used to clean up food that is unsafe or unsuitable for human consumption.
How is food irradiated?
The food is exposed to ionising radiation, either from gamma rays or a high-energy electron beam or x-rays.
Gamma rays and x-rays are a form of radiation that share some characteristics with microwaves, but with much higher energy and penetration.
The rays pass through the food just like microwaves in a microwave oven, but the food does not heat up to any significant extent. Electron beams and x-rays are produced using electricity, which can be switched on or off, and they do not require radioactive material.
In both cases, organisms that are responsible for spoiling foods, such as insects, moulds and bacteria can be killed.
Radiation is measured in kilograys (kGy). Technology allows for a precise dose to be measured. The doses permitted in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Code) are a maximum of 1 kilogray (kGy) for a range of fruits and vegetables (for pest disinfection), and up to 30 kGy for herbs and spices (for bacterial decontamination).
Is irradiated food radioactive?
No. During irradiation the food never comes into contact with the radioactive source and there are upper limits in place on the energy levels that may be used for treating foods. Therefore, the radioactive sources permitted do not generate gamma, electrons or x-rays of sufficient high energy to make food radioactive. No radioactive energy remains in the food after treatment.
What foods are irradiated?
In Australia and New Zealand, herbs and spices, herbal infusions, and some fruits and vegetables can be irradiated.
We have established that there is a technological need to irradiate these foods (namely, pest disinfestation and bacterial decontamination), and that there are no safety concerns or significant loss of nutrients when irradiating these foods.
In November 2019, we received an application to extend the current irradiation permissions in the Code to include all fresh fruit and vegetables (Application A1193 – irradiation as a phytosanitary measure for all fresh fruit and vegetables). The assessment of this application is underway and we expect to consult with the public in October 2020.
Before approving any changes to the irradiation permissions in the Code, we do a thorough assessment of safety, including any potential toxicological and nutritional issues. Our assessment uses best practice internationally accepted risk analysis principles.
If you want to stay informed of the status of this application, you can ask to be placed on the mailing list by completing the subscription form
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How can I tell if food has been irradiated?
A food that has been irradiated, or food that contains irradiated ingredients or components, must be labelled to show that the food, ingredients or components have been treated with ionising radiation.
If the food is not normally required to be labelled such as fresh fruit and vegetables, then the required labelling must be displayed close to the food.
The international Radura symbol (below) may be used in addition to the mandatory labelling.
In December 2011, the ministers responsible for food regulation supported a recommendation from an
independent review of food labelling to review the mandatory labelling requirement for irradiated food. Ministers asked us to do this work. We prepared a review report for Ministers in 2017, and Ministers determined that no further action was required. Read more about the
Last updated: 20 July 2020