Food Irradiation

What is food irradiation?

Food irradiation is the treatment of food with a type of radiation energy known as ionizing radiation. Three different types of radiation are allowed: Gamma rays, X-rays and electron beam radiation.

Ionizing radiation at the levels used for food irradiation contains enough energy to kill bacteria, molds, parasites and insects.

Why irradiate food?

Irradiation is used in food processing

  • To reduce microbial load on spices and dehydrated seasoning preparations, meaning it destroys bacteria, molds and yeast which cause food to spoil.
  • To control insects in wheat, flour and whole wheat flour.
  • To increase shelf life by preventing sprouting or germination in potatoes and onions.

Is eating irradiated foods safe?

Extensive research and testing resulted in irradiation becoming widely recognized as a safe and effective method of reducing harmful bacteria in food products. Foods treated with irradiation are safe to eat and retain their nutritional value, taste, texture and appearance.

Health Canada reviews petitions to allow the irradiation process to be applied to different types of foods before they can be sold in Canada. The Food and Drug Regulations also specify the source, the energy level and the total absorbed dose for the identified food.

Are there currently any irradiated foods that can be sold in Canada?

To date, the following products have been approved by Health Canada for irradiation: potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, whole and ground spices, and dehydrated seasoning preparations.

More information on how food irradiation is regulated is available on the Health Canada website.

Is the irradiation of these foods mandatory?

The use of irradiation on these foods is not mandatory. Regulations allow the irradiation of these foods at the discretion of food producers.

The amount of irradiation that can be applied to foods for sale in Canada is limited to the amount permitted by the Food and Drug Regulations and products must be labelled according to the regulations for irradiated foods.

How can I tell if food has been irradiated?

irradiated - international symbol

Pre-packaged foods that have been wholly irradiated must display the international radiation symbol, along with a statement that the product has been irradiated. Food that is not pre-packaged must have a sign with this information displayed beside the food.

Pre-packaged foods that contain an irradiated ingredient which is 10 per cent or more of the finished product must be identified in the list of ingredients as "irradiated". If the ingredient makes up less than 10 per cent of the finished product, it is exempt from the labelling requirements.

Does treatment by irradiation guarantee the absence of disease-causing microorganisms?

Food irradiation does not guarantee zero risk, but it greatly reduces bacteria and other microorganisms that may be present in food. Irradiation is an optional tool that can be used by the food industry on certain foods to enhance the safety of their products.

Irradiated food must still be handled, stored and cooked properly like all other foods. The rules of safe food handling, which include proper sanitation, packaging, storage and preparation, still need to be followed.

Irradiation cannot restore the palatability of food that is already spoiled. If food looks, smells or tastes bad before irradiation, it will still look, smell and taste bad after irradiation.

What is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's (CFIA) role related to irradiated food?

The CFIA is responsible for the enforcement of the regulations relating to irradiated food products under the Food and Drugs Act.

The CFIA establishes inspection and testing programs to verify compliance by both domestic producers and importers. The CFIA takes appropriate action if irradiated products which have not been approved for sale in Canada, or are improperly labelled, are found in the Canadian marketplace.

For more information on labelling requirements, refer to Irradiated Foods.

Additional frequently asked questions on food irradiation are available on the Health Canada website.

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