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Food Irradiation

Anthony Chapdelaine, Jr., MD, MSPH, Exec. Dir./Sec.*

“Radiation Nation” – One Reason Why Your Food May Be Cancer-Causing

The commonly recognized use for food irradiation – using high-frequency electromagnetic gamma rays (from cobalt-80, cobalt-60, cesium-137), x-rays, electron beams (electrons fired at nearly the speed of light from a linear accelerator) – is to kill bacteria, mold and insects and to prevent sprouting and eliminate spoilage. Most of the electromagnetic energy passes through the food while the remainder kills most of the bacteria. Very, very high doses can kill insects and the Salmonella bacteria that may be found on meats. Sounds good, right?

The truth is that these ionizing-radiation technique create toxic cancer-causing chemicals and destroys much of the food’s nutrient value (destroying or altering vitamins, proteins, essential fatty acids).1

Food Irradiation Approved by the FDA without Scientific Evidence of Safety

Sadly, the history of how the FDA approved food irradiation leaves us baffled and disappointed.2, 3 After food producing and packaging industry organizations heavily lobbied for, and received support from, the US government and international agencies – FDA, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, International Atomic Energy Commission, World Health Organization – to use irradiation of foods, the FDA approved this technique.4 Even the World Health Organization ignored its own panel’s recommendation against food irradiation.5

Food irradiation offers convenience, lower production costs (higher profits) and supplies foods with longer-shelf lives. Convenience, from the farm to the packer to the consumer, is seen readily in that cleanliness standards can be disregarded, speeding up the production process and costing less to the producer/packager who can take short-cuts by depending on “irradiation” to kill all the contaminants left on the unsanitary food: for instance, feces, vomit, urine, Salmonella left on chicken, and E. coli found in perhaps a quarter to a third of ground beef. This creates an attitude in the food grower, packager/handler and preparer that irradiation killed “everything” which then leads to sloppy handling of the foods and easy contamination from unclean hands, careless packing techniques, and cross-contamination at food preparation sites.

So, what scientific evidence from the 1960s onward did the FDA use to approve food irradiation as safe? Would you believe that the preponderance of evidence they examined clearly demonstrated – not scientific evidence for the safety of radiating food – but, on the contrary, overwhelming evidence that food radiation was dangerous?3, 4

Originally, the FDA (which became politicized early after its formation and relies heavily for its funding from “fees” that it charges the food and drug companies that it originally was supposed to be monitoring) looked at over 441 published studies.

Here are examples of two animal studies and one combined animal and human study that they looked at:

  1. Medical College of Virginia. Rats were fed irradiated beef. Within 34 days all rats died of hemorrhagic syndrome. Castrating male rats and feeding them (and also female rats) irradiated food resulted in all the rats (male and female) dying prematurely, all of them within 63 days.6
  2. Researchers irradiated plain table sugar (sucrose) and then stored it for months. After that time, they mixed up a culture medium for lymphocytes (immune system white blood cells) which contained not quite 1% irradiated sugar. They mixed up another culture medium using the same weak (nearly 1% sugar) concentration, but a medium that had not been irradiated (used as the control). Then they grew the lymphocytes in the two different mixtures. The lymphocytes in the normal (not irradiated) sugar medium grew normally. The lymphocytes in the irradiated sugar medium were damaged so badly that the researchers had a hard time estimating the percentage with damaged chromosomes. In other words, normal white blood cells, exposed to a culture medium containing a tiny percentage of irradiated sugar, caused them to look like the lymphocytes had themselves been exposed to radiation. Radiated food has a similar affect on humans as it does on lymphocytes.7
  3. National Institute of Nutrition, India. Surprisingly, out of the 441 studies, this was the only human study considered by the FDA. In the 1970s, scientists at the National Institute of Nutrition in India fed freshly irradiated wheat to mice, rats, monkeys and a small group of children. Mutational damage resulted in the rodents. For the children, researchers took fifteen who were chronically malnourished and divided them into three groups of five children each. They fed the three different groups of children wheat that had been recently irradiated, wheat that had been stored after first being irradiated, and wheat that had not been irradiated. Four out of five (80%) of the children fed freshly irradiated wheat developed abnormal precancerous lymphocytes (called polyploidy and usually seen after direct exposure to radiation). The children fed non-irradiated wheat had normal lymphocytes. The children fed wheat that had been irradiated and then stored showed some damaged lymphocytes, but fewer than the children fed freshly-irradiated wheat.8, 9

Of the original 441 studies, the FDA for some reason “accepted” only 226 studies to review. Then, they refined their criteria even further, and decided to use only 69 of the studies to examine in-depth. The FDA concluded that 32 of these 69 studies (46%) showed food irradiation to be dangerous. Then, in a peculiar form of bureaucratic reasoning – seemingly raised to the level of an art-form and routinely practiced by the FDA – they threw out all but five of the studies, including throwing out all 32 of the studies (including the ones we summarized above) which showed adverse affects from food irradiation.

From those five studies (later shown to be seriously flawed), to the delight of the industry lobbyists the FDA approved food irradiation as “safe.” The FDA, a federal agency charged with determining the safe level of radiation that can be used with foods and also be safe for humans, disregarded the public federal rules and likewise ignored all the scientific evidence that showed the dangers from irradiating food while also ignoring calls to “require standard toxicological and carcinogenicity testing of concentrated extracts of radiolytic products from irradiated meat and other foods.”3

What Does Food Irradiation Do to the Food?

Over the last decade, attempts at decreasing the strength of radiation used, or using non-radioactive “radiant” energy (using electrons, for example) is supposed to decrease the problems from gamma or other forms of food irradiation (which are still in use).

Only they don’t.

Depending on the form of food “irradiation,” to a greater-or-lesser degree the energy required to break the chemical bonds and structure of microorganisms (bacteria, mold, etc.) and insects, necessarily disrupts the chemical bonds in the food itself. For one thing, this technique creates “radiolytic products,” and in the process creates dangerous “free radicals” and destroys many of the antioxidants (such as Vitamin C) that protect against free radicals.10 Early on, Russians called the breakdown products from high-dose food irradiation, “radiotoxines,” which the FDA called “Known Radiolytic Products” and “Unique Radiolytic Products” (URPs). The “known” products included cancer-causing formaldehyde (embalming fluid), benzene and other chemicals. The URPs (originally estimated by the FDA as comprising about 10% of the chemicals in food) were formed by irradiation of the chemicals found to exist in mass-produced “factory-farm” food (herbicides, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, preservatives and so forth). The toxicities of URPs are unknown (since scientists have not studied most of them) but as likely-as-not to be carcinogenic.3, 4, 11

Whether using electrons, gamma rays, or any other technique intended to disrupt the chemical/structural bonds of microbes and insects, the following events occur:

  • Formation of formaldehyde (embalming fluid), benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals (so-called “Known Radiolytic Products”). Irradiating table sugar will create formaldehyde, i.e., “We know this will happen.” 7, 9
  • Formation of thousands of chemicals, many carcinogenic, called URPs (so called “Unique Radiolytic Products.), i.e., “We have no idea what these will do to humans.” 4  
  • Increase in the amount of aflatoxin (up to 100-fold), a cancer-producing mold found on peanuts and other foodstuffs (as the FDA’s own 1979 study showed).12
  • Tumor production: a study done for the US Army and the US Department of Agriculture found that mice fed a diet high in irradiated chicken (compared with mice fed non-irradiated chicken) died earlier and had more tumors.13
  • Disease and death: in the FDA’s final report approving food irradiation, they stated that when up to one-third of the study animals’ food was irradiated, these chronic (long term) feeding studies had to be halted because the animals got ill or died.11
  • Destruction of the myelin covering around the central nervous system nerve tissue (as happens in multiple sclerosis). Researchers fed female cats irradiated food during pregnancy and lactation. The cats slowly developed severe neurological diseases (loss of muscle control, vision loss). After several more months on a regular (non-irradiated) diet the cats slowly regained normal function. Male cats, non-pregnant female cats, the offspring of the neurologically damaged cats and pregnant rats fed the same irradiated diet did not develop this neurological disease.14
  • Fatality or illness. Cats that consumed irradiated pet food imported into Australia (causing neurological problems, since the irradiation destroyed most of the Vitamin A) became ill or died in large numbers. The same cat food imported into 49 other countries, none of which required irradiation, caused no illness. Australia repealed its cat-food irradiation requirement in 2009, several months after discovering the problem.15
  • Destruction of food nutrition: irradiation destroys much of the vitamin, protein and fat content of foods. Even when you think you are eating healthily, the irradiated food will lack nutrition.16
  • Prevention of ability to detect botulism toxin (a potentially fatal toxin).
  • Depression of the immune system.7, 17

Can’t We Just Avoid Irradiated Foods?

Remember, it was the FDA that approved food irradiation – knowing all the adverse affects, knowing food irradiation’s production of cancer-causing substances (like formaldehyde) and production of URPs (the vast numbers of chemicals whose danger and toxicities were, and still are, unknown).3, 4

Well, of course the FDA would at least give the consumer “fair warning” and require all foods purchased by the consumer to be labeled as to whether it had been irradiated? Not really. The FDA only requires labeling as “irradiated” for a “whole food” that is sold unchanged. If you process it, add anything to it, or change it in any way, then you don’t need to identify that it was irradiated. (In other words, nearly all packaged foods.) For example, an irradiated whole tomato requires labeling, but the same tomato used to produce ketchup does not require labeling. The FDA and the food industry make it extremely difficult to know which foods have been irradiated.

One way (the hard way) to avoid irradiated foods is to bypass the irradiated foods permitted by the FDA: fruits, vegetables, lettuce, spinach, most animal meat (beef, pork, chicken), crustaceans (shrimp, etc.), shellfish (oyster, etc.), sprouted seeds, shelled eggs, herbs, spices, peas, wheat and wheat flour, nuts, etc.

Another way (the only sure way) to avoid irradiated foods (and all its toxic by-products) is to buy certified organic foods, buy foods from an organic farmer selling at a farmer’s market, or grow the food yourself.

Make certain you take an absorbable multivitamin (such as capsule or powder) containing an adequate vitamin and mineral formula (not the typical “one-a-day” tablets or capsules), since lack of these nutrients (through depleted soil, food irradiation, cooking) acts like radiation by damaging cellular DNA.18

* The Coalition for Advanced Cancer Treatment and Prevention a project of The National Fund for Alternative Medicine


  1. Roggenthen ES, Food Irradiation: Its Safety, Value and Dangers, Pamphlet Publications, Dayton, Ohio, 1984, Pg. 8.
  2. U.S. Federal Register, 1983-2001.
  3. Epstein S, and Hauter W, “Preventing Pathogenic Food Poisoning: Sanitation Not Irradiation,” Int J Health Serv, 2001, 31(1), Pgs 87-92.
  4. Public Citizen, Cancer Prevention Coalition, Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, A Broken Record: How the FDA Legalized — and Continues to Legalize — Food Irradiation without Testing It for Safety, Washington, D.C., 2000.
  5. World Health Organization, “High-Dose Irradiation: Wholesomeness of Food Irradiated with Doses Above 10 kGy,” Report of a Joint FAO/IAEA/WHO Study Group. Technical Report Series 890, WHO, Geneva, 1999.
  6. Mellette SJ, and Leone LA, “Influence of age, Sex, Strain of Rat and Fat Soluble Vitamins on Hemorrhagic Syndromes in Rats Fed Irradiated Beef,” Federation Proceedings, 1960, 19, Pgs 1045-1048 (Co-sponsored by the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army).
  7. Shaw MW, and Hayes E, “Effects of Irradiated Sucrose on the Chromosomes of Human Lymphocytes in Vitro,” Nature, 1966, 211, Pgs 1254-1255.
  8. Vijayalaxmi, and Srikantia SG, “A Review of the Studies on the Wholesomeness of Irradiated Wheat Conducted at the National Institute of Nutrition, India.” Radiat Phys Chem, 1989, 34(6), Pgs 941-952.
  9. Tritsch GL, Statement before the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment of the Committee on Energy and Commerce (House of Representatives) on House Resolution 956 – June 19, 1987, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1988, Pg 96.
  10. Piccioni R, “Food Irradiation: Contaminating Our Food,” Ecologist, 1988, 18(2), Pgs 48-55.
  11. Gibbs G, The Food That Would Last Forever: Understanding the Dangers of Food Irradiation, Avery, 1995.
  12. Mayell M, “Zapping Your Daily Diet: The Risk of Irradiated Foods,” EastWest: The Journal of Natural Living; February, 1986, Pg 36.
  13. Thayer DW, USDA Eastern Regional Research Center; “Report on Wholesomeness Studies of Chicken,” March 19, 1984.
  14. Duncan ID, et al, “Extensive Remyelination of the CNS Leads to Functional Recovery,” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2009 Apr, 106(16), Pgs 6832-6836.
  15. Champion Pet Foods, 2008,
  16. Friedman M, Ed, Nutritional and Toxicological Consequences of Food Poisoning, New York, Plenum Press, 1991.
  17. Kesavan PC, and Swaminathan MS, “Cytotoxic and Mutagenic Effects of Irradiated Substrates and Food Material,” Radiation Botany, 1971, 11, Pgs 253-281.
  18. Ames BN, and Gold LS, “Paracelsus to Parascience: the Environmental Cancer Distraction,” Muta Res, 2000 Jan, 447(1), Pgs 3-13.
  19. Dreher H, Your Defense Against Cancer: The Complete Guide to Cancer Prevention, New York, Harper and Row, 1988, Pg 113.
  20. Rosenberg B, “A Diner’s Guide to Irradiation,” Science Digest, September, 1986, Pg. 30.
  21. U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, § 170.22