EFSA assesses the safety of food irradiation

EFSA’s scientific experts have updated scientific advice on the safety of irradiation of food – a process which can be used to destroy bacteria that cause food poisoning. In its comprehensive advice to EU policy makers, EFSA’s BIOHAZ Panel[1] looked at the efficacy and microbiological safety of the process, and EFSA’s CEF Panel[2] looked at possible risks arising from the formation of several chemical substances as a result of food irradiation.

EFSA’s experts conclude that there are no microbiological risks for the consumer linked to the use of food irradiation. The practice of irradiation, although effective, should be considered only as one of several processes which can reduce the presence of pathogens in food. They say irradiation should be part of an integrated food safety management programme to protect consumers, which includes good agricultural, manufacturing and hygienic practices. The experts state that most of the substances formed in food by irradiation are also formed during other types of food processing, with levels comparable to those arising, for instance, from the heat treatment of foods.

They note that only a very limited quantity of food consumed in Europe is irradiated today. The only new evidence pointing to possible adverse health effects concerns some recent studies reporting neurological problems in cats fed exclusively with animal feed which had been irradiated at extremely high doses. These effects were found only in cats. However, neither the causes nor the mechanism which could explain the development of the neurological problems observed are clarified in these studies. Further research would be required to assess the possible relevance of these studies for human health.

The Panels recommend that decisions on foods which can be irradiated and on the doses used[3] should not be based only on predefined food categories, as is currently the case, but also on factors such as: the bacteria concerned, the level of bacterial reduction required, whether the food is fresh, frozen, dried, or on the food’s fat or protein content. They also say that decisions on the type of food which can be irradiated should also take into account the diversity of food products nowadays available to consumers such as ready-to-eat foods.

What is food irradiation?
Food irradiation is a process which can be used to kill bacteria that cause food poisoning, such as salmonella or campylobacter. It can also delay fruit ripening, and help stop vegetables such as potatoes and onions from sprouting. In the EU, all foods or ingredients of foods that have been irradiated must be labelled as 'irradiated' or 'treated with ionising radiation' in order to allow consumers to make an informed choice.

Irradiated food should not be confused with the possible radioactive contamination of foods following nuclear incidents. Irradiating food does not make it radioactive.

[1] BIOHAZ = the Panel deals with biological hazards in relations to food safety and food-borne diseases
[2] CEF = the Panel deals with questions on the safety of use of materials in contact with food, enzymes, flavourings and processing aids, and also with questions related to the safety of processes.
[3] Food and food ingredients authorised for irradiation in the EU are listed by Directive 1993/3/EC. So far, this list contains only a single food category: dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings. Member States can authorise at national levels the irradiation of foods and food ingredients which have received favourable opinion from the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) in 1986, 1992, 1998 such as fruits, vegetables, cereals, fish and shellfish, fresh meats, poultry.

Media contacts