How Food Irradiation Works

Key points

  • Food irradiation is a tool to help keep food safe from germs.
  • It does not change the texture or appearance of food.
  • Food does not become radioactive.
  • The process is safe and effective.
Radura symbol for food irradiation. Symbol is a green label showing two hollow leaves with a filled in circle above it making the shape of a flower. The whole flower is surrounded by a circle that is broken up into bands on the top.


Food irradiation is a food safety process that uses radiation to kill germs that cause food poisoning (foodborne illness). Food irradiation is safe, and its safety and efficacy have been endorsed by federal agencies and intergovernmental organizations.

How it works

Food irradiation works by exposing food to ionizing electromagnetic (gamma or x-ray) radiation. Food irradiation is considered a "cold" method, meaning it does not use heat to kill germs. Other food safety processes that you may be more familiar with, like pasteurization and canning, use heat.

The irradiation process happens after a food is produced and packaged. Food enters a chamber where it is exposed to a specific amount of radiation. The radiation penetrates the food and kills germs or prevents them from multiplying, and it does not linger in the food. Irradiation is one more protective step, but it does not replace other food safety measures.

Irradiation Process

A truck is arriving at an irradiation facility with foods ready to be irradiated.
1. Foods such as fresh meat and spices leave processing facilities and arrive at facilities that use radiation to kill germs that can make you sick.
Foods going into an irradiation chamber is showed with a close up of meat with germs on it before the irradiation process.
2. At the irradiation facility, foods ride on a conveyor belt through an irradiation chamber.
An irradiation chamber is showed with ground beef going through the chamber. A close up shows germs on the meat breaking down.
3. In the chamber, foods pass under a beam of radiation. This kills germs by breaking the bonds that hold the germ's DNA together.
Irradiation chamber is showed with foods leaving it. A close up of meat is shown with an image of less bacteria being present.
4. Once the food leaves the irradiation chamber, most of the germs are destroyed.
A truck is outside an irradiation facility getting ready to head to a grocery store.
5. The irradiated food goes to grocery stores and food service facilities.
Man in wheelchair and woman standing shopping the meat section at a grocery store. The Radura symbol is shown on the meat display case.
6. You can identify irradiated foods by looking for the Radura symbol. It will be on the food label with one of these statements: "Treated with Radiation" or "Treated by Irradiation."


Irradiation can make foods safer that are typically eaten raw, like some produce. Irradiation can also make raw foods that you cook at home, like ground beef, safer to handle. That's because irradiation kills most of the germs in the food before you buy it. Think of food irradiation as an added layer of protection against harmful germs that can make you sick.

What the research shows

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved food irradiation as a safe and effective process. Food irradiation has been evaluated for safety for over 30 years. Many agencies and organizations have endorsed its safety and effectiveness including:

  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • United States Department of Agriculture
  • World Health Organization
  • International Atomic Energy Agency
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Even astronauts eat irradiated food!

These reports show more information on the science behind food irradiation:

Common questions

All irradiated foods must display the Radura symbol to let consumers know that the product has been treated with irradiation. Labels may also say "Treated with Radiation" or "Treated by Irradiation." For more detailed information on labeling, please visit the FDA irradiation page.

Radura symbol for food irradiation is a green label showing two hollow leaves with a filled in circle above it with the whole flower surrounded by a circle that is broken up into bands on the top.
Radura symbol

FDA has approved a variety of foods for irradiation. Approved foods include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Chicken, turkey, beef, and pork
  • Shellfish
  • Spices and seasonings
  • Shell eggs

You can ask the stores where you shop if they sell irradiated foods.

Irradiated foods do not lose a significant amount of nutrients during the process. Nutrient loss during irradiation is similar to the amount of nutrients lost during cooking, freezing, canning, and other food safety methods.

Irradiated foods do not become radioactive, meaning they do not give off radiation. Eating irradiated foods does not expose you to or contaminate you with radiation or radioactive materials.

During the food irradiation process, beams of radiation pass through the food in the same way that X-ray beams pass through you when you get a medical X-ray. After you receive an X-ray, you are not radioactive, and no additional radiation or radioactive materials remain inside or outside your body. Similarly, after food is irradiated it does not have any additional radiation or radioactive materials inside or outside the food.