Food Irradiation:

Available Research Indicates That Benefits Outweigh Risks

RCED-00-217: Published: Aug 24, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 25, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the benefits and risks of food irradiation, focusing on the: (1) extent and the purposes for which food irradiation is being used in the United States; and (2) scientifically supported benefits and risks of food irradiation.

GAO noted that: (1) to date, only limited amounts of irradiated foods have been sold in the United States; (2) irradiated spices, herbs, and dry vegetable seasonings constitute the largest category of irradiated food--in 1999, about 95 million pounds of these products were irradiated, accounting for about 10 percent of their total consumption; (3) in addition, small amounts of irradiated fresh fruits, vegetables, and poultry have been available in wholesale and retail markets, primarily in Florida and several midwestern states; (4) irradiated frozen ground beef has recently begun to be marketed in several midwestern states and Florida; (5) the major purchasers of irradiated foods are health care and food service establishments, which purchase them primarily to minimize the threat of foodborne illness; (6) concerns on the part of food processors, retailers, and others about consumer acceptance of irradiated foods have limited their availability to date; (7) scientific studies conducted by public and private researchers worldwide over the past 50 years strongly support the benefits of food irradiation while indicating minimal potential risks; (8) for example, an expert committee convened by the World Health Organization reviewed the findings of over 500 studies and concluded that food irradiation creates no toxicological, microbiological, or nutritional problems; (9) cited benefits of food irradiation include: (a) reducing foodborne pathogens; (b) extending the shelf life of some fruits and vegetables by preventing sprouting, deactivating mold, and killing bacteria; and (c) controlling insect pests--thus reducing the need for environmentally harmful fumigants; (10) these studies have not borne out concerns about the safety of consuming irradiated foods; (11) as for nutritional quality, the main components of food--carbohydrates, protein, and fats--undergo minimal change during irradiation, and vitamin loss corresponds to that in foods that are cooked, canned, or held in cold storage; (12) finally, regarding worker safety and the environment, commercial irradiation plants are strictly regulated; (13) worldwide, over the past 30 years, while several accidents have resulted in injury or death to workers because of radiation exposure, all of the accidents occurred because safety systems and control procedures had been bypassed; and (14) in North America, in over 40 years of transporting the types of radioactive isotopes used for irradiation, there has never been an accident resulting in the escape of these materials into the environment.

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