What is it?
Food irradiation is one of many beneficial uses of nuclear energy, in which food is exposed to radiation in order to remove harmful agents that could otherwise cause sickness in the person or animal consuming the food. The irradiation method involves exposing the food to carefully controlled amounts of ionizing radiation for a specified duration. Food irradiation can help keep your food safe by:
- destroying harmful bacteria, such as E.coli and salmonella that can be present in supermarket food
- eliminating insects, such as fruit flies, or other undesired organisms present on or even inside the food
- slowing down fruit ripening and vegetable sprouting, thereby increasing shelf life and reducing post-harvest losses
In addition to the above uses, the equipment used for food irradiation is also sometimes used for the sterilization of hospital and surgical equipment.
See a video on how an irradiation facility operates.
Does food become radioactive?
It is a popular myth that food which is exposed to radiation will become radioactive itself, but this is not true. Exposing the food to radiation does not make the food radioactive in any way. It is important to distinguish between radioactive food and irradiated food. Radioactive food has come in direct physical contact with radioactive material. Irradiated food, on the other hand, is only exposed to gamma energy rays emitted from a radiation source several metres away. The food never comes in contact with any type of radioactive material. The energy passes through the food, kills bacteria and other micro-organisms, and then dissipates.
What is the CNSC’s role?
The CNSC is responsible for ensuring the safe operation of food irradiation facilities in Canada. Food irradiators are Class II nuclear facilities and must be licensed by the CNSC. Licensing and regular compliance inspections conducted by the CNSC ensure that all food irradiation facilities meet the requirements of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, as well as CNSC regulations, and are operated safely.
Is it safe?
Food irradiation is not a new technique. It has been used in Canada since the early 1960s and is currently used in at least 26 countries. Around the world, almost half a million tons of food are irradiated every year before arriving on our tables for consumption. Many studies have been done over the years to investigate the safety of food irradiation, and the results were presented in the World Health Organization’s Technical Reports # 659 (PDF) and # 890, (PDF) which concluded that food irradiation is safe, and recommended that it be more widely adopted to help reduce outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.
In Canada, the safety of irradiated food itself is regulated by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. More information on food irradiation and food safety can be found on the Health Canada site or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency site.