Food Irradiation Updates

Published by Ronald F. Eustice and sponsored  by GRAY*STAR Inc.
May  2014
Food Irradiation Update is published monthly by Ronald F. Eustice, a food quality & safety assurance consultant based in Minneapolis and Tucson. He can be reached at: and at612.202.1016.

April was an exciting month for food irradiation. FDA's approval irradiation of crustaceans created excitement and optimism in the food industry as well as in the media. Good things are happening! Watch for further developments. Learn more at...

Rocco Basson, HEPRO, Capetown, South Africa writes the following; "An article in the April issue of Food Irradiation Update reported that imported South African Persimmons were being irradiated at Gulfport as 'there are no facilities available in South Africa to carry out the process on the required scale'. I must refute this as Hepro Cape can process 2 containers (that is approximately 36 tons) per week."
Feature Article: Efforts to "zap" bacteria in food are slow to catch hold; Kimberly Kindy; Washington Post (April 28, 2014):
Gunner Nelson uses the Gray Star Genesis II Unit to irradiate oysters at Gateway America in Gulfport, Mississippi. Sean Gardner/The Washington Post
GULFPORT, MISSISSIPPI: The nuclear energy that Frank Benso uses to kill bacteria in fruit and oysters has won widespread support from public health officials and scientists, who say it could turn the tide against the plague of foodborne illness.

But it has barely caught on in the United States. The technology - called irradiation - zaps

bacteria out of food and is highly effective, but for many consumers it conjures up frightening images of mutant life forms and phosphorescent food.

Benso, who opened Gateway America 18 months ago, also knows his new venture pits him against the nation's growing buy-local, back-to-nature movement that shuns industrial food processing.

"Those naysayers better throw out their microwaves, because that is irradiation," Benso said, standing in his 50,000-square-foot irradiation facility. Dozens of scientific studies have shown that irradiated food is safe for human consumption, and that no radioactive material has leaked outside any U.S. plant, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The three forms of energy that can be used - gamma rays, electron beams and X-rays - can virtually eliminate bacteria in minutes. All this has prompted the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and dozens of other groups to endorse its use.

Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, blames an anti-science movement" for the public resistance. He is frustrated with the federal government for endorsing irradiation but then not educating the public as it has with childhood immunizations and water fluoridation.

"Not using irradiation is the single greatest public health failure of the last part of the 20th century in America," said Osterholm, citing CDC estimates that 1 in 6 people will get food poisoning this year and 3,000 will die. "We could have saved so many lives."

The United States has dozens of irradiation facilities, but most of them are used to sterilize medical equipment and supplies. Consumer goods such as tampons and bandages are also routinely irradiated. A half-dozen facilities use radiation exclusively for food.

A steadfast team of consumer advocates has successfully campaigned against its use, first at the nonprofit group Public Citizen and then after founding the nonprofit organization Food and Water Watch.

The Washington-based group claims credit for keeping irradiated food out of the National School Lunch Program and blocking efforts to get rid of the federal requirement that all irradiated food in retail establishments carry a Radura label - a green plant in a circle - indicating it has been irradiated.

Food and Water Watch officials point out that the same energy that kills bacteria can also alter the chemical structure of food. The group's concern is that carcinogens are created - something that Executive Director Wenonah Hauter warned about in her 2008 book "Zapped: Irradiation and the Death of Food."

In recent years, the advocates have increasingly focused on a separate concern: that manufacturers using irradiation will slack off on other vital safety measures designed to keep pathogens out of food in the first place.

"We are concerned about the impact that the technology will have on the entire food-production process - that it will become less about prevention and more about treatment," Assistant Director Patty Lovera said.

Where and how

Gateway America is in what Benso thinks is a sweet spot: At the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, near the Gulf of Mexico and major highways, where vast amounts of fresh fish, fruits and meat can be shipped, trucked or flown in and treated.

A few miles down the road from his high-tech facility is an old-fashioned oyster-shucking house filled with men and women wearing rubber boots and hairnets who work 10-hour shifts, knocking off mussels and clumps of dirt to provide a steady supply of oysters to Benso's plant.

Benso not only had to gamble his life savings and recruit investors to launch his company, he had to pass a series of inspections - including one by the NRC - and is regulated by no fewer than 16 agencies. And for each food item that he and other irradiators treat, the FDA had to grant permission to do so.

It's a slog to make it through the FDA's approval process. Earlier this month, the agency approved irradiation for use on crustaceans - shrimp, lobsters, crabs - but it took 13 years. The last approval before that was for spinach and iceberg lettuce, in 2008, which took nearly a decade.

In its reviews, the FDA looks at whether the treatment could increase the toxicity of the food, degrade nutrients or create new opportunities for pathogens to flourish instead of die. With crustaceans and leafy greens, concerns from Food and Water Watch and other groups arose about furans, potentially carcinogenic substances that are produced by "ionizing radiation."

The treatments use either gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams to eliminate bacteria by destroying their genetic material, but this also can alter the chemical makeup of the food.

Food scientists say it sounds scary, but they emphasize that the same thing happens when peaches are heated during canning or when eggs are scrambled over a flame. The question that the FDA had to answer is whether irradiation produced levels of furans comparable to canning and cooking or triggered an explosion of them.

Dennis Keefe, director of the FDA's food-additive safety office, said the research shows that the amount of furans produced was "much lower than what would be produced during the normal cooking process."

Still, Keefe said the FDA continues to be conservative about the level of irradiation it allows. The agency still expects food processors to eliminate as many bacteria as possible before irradiation, which comes at the end and is treated as an "add-on" measure.

"It's not intended to be a substitute for good manufacturing practices," Keefe said.

Overusing irradiation can make food unappealing. In ground beef, a high dose can produce a "wet dog" odor. Too much radiation can make spinach limp and walnuts taste fishy.

The only documented health problems linked to irradiation involved cats in Australia that ate pet food treated with a high dose. In this episode, dozens of cats suffered paralysis and had to be euthanized. In response, Australia has banned cat-food irradiation. Irradiation experts point out that the dosage levels used in Australia were 100 times the level allowed for pet food in the United States - and about five times what is approved for human food.

It's in there

Americans already may eat more irradiated food than they realize.

Irradiated ingredients end up in processed foods that fill refrigerated and frozen-food cases in grocery stores throughout the United States. None of those products have to carry a special label.

So irradiated shrimp would have to bear the Radura logo if packaged on its own, but not as an ingredient in tortellini or gumbo, for example.

Restaurant owners don't have to disclose whether menu items include irradiated food.

"The big food companies, if they are making a TV dinner or a meal, they use spices that have been irradiated for the most part. They don't want to introduce possible pathogens that could spoil the food. Food companies reduce risk any way they can," said Jeff Barach, former vice president of science policy at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

The federal government does not keep track of the amount of food that is irradiated. One source for that information is a food industry consultant, Ronald T. Eustice, who also publishes the monthly newsletter Food Irradiation Update.

By Eustice's estimates, which are backed by other industry tallies, spices represent the largest proportion of irradiated food products in the United States - more than 175 million pounds - which is about one-third of all commercial spices. (Spices are often treated because they can have high levels of salmonella and other contaminants, sometimes introduced in foreign countries where they are harvested and dried outdoors.)

Irradiated hamburger totals about 18 million pounds and is sold at Wegmans supermarkets and by mail from Schwan's Home Service and Omaha Steaks.

The only large expansion of irradiated food in recent years - and a big driver behind Benso's and two other irradiators' decision to start operating - is with imported fruits and vegetables.

In 2007, 10 million pounds of fruits and vegetables that are imported or from Hawaii were being irradiated, typically to kill invasive insects that could harm domestic crops. Now, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture and industry estimates, it's closer to 40 million pounds.

The treatment, called phytosanitation, is beginning to replace fumigation and other chemical methods that can be used without consumer notification.

Food irradiation must carry a label because federal law treats it as a food additive, which requires that it be treated like other ingredients. Other processes such as chemical washes for chickens and fumigation for strawberries do not have to be disclosed on packaging.

Which is part of why irradiation advocates have fought to remove the label. Professor Christine Bruhn of the University of California at Davis and others are pushing for ways to get consumers to view irradiation in a positive light.

"I would like to change the label to say 'Irradiated to Protect your Family' or 'Irradiated for Maximum Safety' said Bruhn, who has been studying consumer attitudes toward irradiation for 30 years. "But a lot of people - they just want to get rid of the i-word." Read full article here...

Irradiating our food to make it safe; Washington Post; (April 28, 2014)
By Cristina Rivero and Kimberly Kindy

WASHINGTON, DC: Food manufacturers use three types of irradiation to reduce pathogens, destroy insects, and delay spoilage of imported fruits and vegetables, ground beef, oysters and spices. Gamma-ray technology is more commonly used than electron-beam and X-rays for food products. Here's how food is typically irradiated before it is shipped and distributed. Read related article. 

Feature Article
Using ionizing radiation on crustaceans to control foodborne pathogens and extend shelf life will be permitted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA);(April 15, 2014):
WASHINGTON, DC: Using ionizing radiation on crustaceans to control foodborne pathogens and extend shelf life is to be permitted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

In response to a petition from the National Fisheries Institute, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said today that it is allowing ionizing radiation on crustaceans like crab, shrimp, lobster, and crayfish to control foodborne pathogens and extend shelf life.

The FDA said it based its decision on a rigorous safety assessment that considered potential toxicity, the effect of irradiation on nutrients, and the potential microbiological risk. It also factored in previous evaluations of the safety of irradiating other foods, including poultry, meat, mollusks, lettuce, and spinach.

The rule covers raw, frozen, cooked, partially cooked, shelled, and dried crustaceans, as well as cooked or ready-to-cook crustaceans processed with spices or small amounts of other food ingredients.

The agency said the technique is not a substitute for proper food handling. All foods that undergo ionizing irradiation must be labeled with the international symbol for irradiation (called the radura) and the statement "Treated with radiation" or "Treated by irradiation."

According to a notice that will be published in the Federal Register on Apr 14, the FDA is taking comments on the rule till May 15.

"Ionizing radiation is a proven and effective food safety technology that can now be incorporated into an already robust modern system that ensures the wholesomeness of crustaceans," said Gavin Gibbons, NFI's vice president for communications. "This will be another tool, in addition to existing government regulations, that companies can use to ensure the safety of their seafood. FDA has made clear that use of irradiating technology will supplement, not replace, stringent food safety standards that have led seafood to be among the safest of foods."

The agency requires that companies identify irradiated foods on packaging, but not on multi-ingredient foods or irradiated food served in restaurants.

Sources for information in this article include the following: 
"Irradiated poop won't make you sick, but it's still poop."


"Irradiated poop won't make you sick but it's still poop."

This statement is correct. Using irradiation does not increase or decrease the amount of poop that food may already contain.

Some pathogenic bacteria such as E.coli O157:H7 are "fecal bacteria". Bacteria that like to live in fecal matter. Irradiation is very effective at eliminating these bacteria as well as other pathogens.


This Myth is specific to irradiating meat and poultry products to minimize the risk of food-borne disease from various pathogens including fecal bacteria. It is based on the erroneous concept that since irradiation can eliminate bacterial dangers, then (existing) sanitary measures need not, and will not, be followed. It assumes that meat processors will run dirty operations and will not try to minimize contamination of the final product.


Although the Myth is correct, the underlying presumption that irradiation will replace sanitation is false.


Irradiation is not a replacement for sanitation. Irradiation is a component of sanitation. In practice it is an additional "kill step" assuring that any bacteria that may have passed through existing sanitary procedures will be eliminated and not cause harm. Using irradiation does not reduce or eliminate the other sanitation controls that are required through regulation.


The most common "kill step" used is heat through cooking or pasteurization. Just like irradiation, heat does not increase nor decrease the amount of poop that a food product may already contain. Should heat pasteurization not be used because it does not remove poop? The same can be asked of high pressure processing....albeit compressed poop.


No one wants poop in his or her food. However, should any trace amounts of fecal bacteria make it through the process, most people prefer pasteurized, irradiated and/or cooked poop.


When I purchase irradiated meat, I know that the processor has taken an extra step to assure my safety. A processor who is willing to take this extra step is more likely to maintain a very sanitary production line.


USDA Chapman Annual Phytosanitary Irradiation Workshop

ORANGE, CALIFORNIA: On March 25 and 26th, Chapman University hosted the 4th Annual Phytosanitary Irradiation workshop attended by 55 people representing growers, retailers, irradiation providers, and academia.  The primary goal was to increase awareness and understanding of irradiation as a phytosanitary treatment in order to facilitate the use of the technology in US fruit and vegetable export programs.  The information presented and discussion among the audience and presenters allowed for an improved understanding of the opportunities presented by phytosanitary irradiation.  Details of the workshop including agenda and links to the presentations can be found at next workshop will be March 25-26 at Chapman University in Orange, CA. 

Contacts:  Dr. Anuradha Prakash,

Margaret Smither,

Food Irradiation Can Save Thousands of Lives Each Year; ANS Nuclear Cafe; Lenka Koller (April 29, 2014): 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 people get food poisoning each year in the United States and that 3000 die from foodborne illness. Food irradiation can drastically decrease these numbers by killing harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella in meat and produce. The U.S. government endorses the use of food irradiation, but does not educate the public about its benefits. Food irradiation has not caught on in the United States because consumers fear that radiation will mutate the food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a label for any food that has been irradiated. Learn more here...
Food safety tool effective but underutilized; OregonLive, by Lynne Terry (May1, 2014):

 A well-known tool that could stem food poisoning outbreaks across the country is not widely used over fears it could be harmful even though U.S. and international studies show it's safe.

That tool is irradiation, the focus of a report by The Washington Post. The technology involves zapping items with gamma rays, electron beams or X-rays to kill bacteria. It works well against the most common and deadliest foodborne pathogens: salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli which sicken millions of people every year in the United States.

And yet the food industry has been slow to use irradiation even though the Food and Drug Administration has approved its use for dozens of food items, most recently for crustaceans

Radura is an excellent source of information on food irradiation.
Food Irradiation Update is being sent to you by Ronald F. Eustice and is sponsored by GRAY*STAR, Inc., the manufacturer of the Genesis Irradiator.
Food irradiation is a cold pasteurization process that will do for meats, produce, and other foods what thermal pasteurization did for milk decades ago.
Ronald F. Eustice, Consultant
Phone: 612.202.1016 





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