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Released: May 16, 2002

Also see: Summer 2002 Food Safety news package

Irradiation is Promise for Maintaining Safe Food Supply

MANHATTAN, Kan. – Having spent more than 30 years studying food science, Karen Penner knows firsthand that Americans are blessed with the safest, most bountiful food supply in the world.

And yet, scientists also know the safety of that food supply is regularly at risk. The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 200 known diseases can be transmitted through food.

The threat, however, doesn’t frighten Penner, a food safety specialist at Kansas State University. She said the food industry often addresses problems quickly, having developed such technologies as steam pasteurization and irradiation, and implemented such programs as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (commonly called HACCP).

Penner thinks irradiation is the technology that holds much promise for the future of food safety. Current information suggests that irradiation can provide a similar safety step for food as pasteurization has done for milk.

"At fairly low levels of irradiation, harmful bacteria can be destroyed in a variety of food products, including poultry, beef, pork..." Penner said. "One of the big benefits is the reduction of harmful bacteria and food spoilage bacteria, so [consumers] get longer shelf life for that product in their [home] refrigerator."

Irradiation is used widely in such non-food products as band-aids, straws and surgical supplies. The U.S. Postal Service is irradiating some mail, a response to the anthrax scare that gripped the nation in late 2001.

Irradiation is already approved for some meat products, including beef and chicken. Approval is pending for processed food products, such as lunch meat or hot dogs, which may potentially carry the deadly pathogen Listeria monocytogenes.

Penner has no doubts that food irradiation is safe.

"[Applying irradiation to food] at low levels does little to the food itself. There’s no change in color, odor, doesn’t cook the product because there is no heat involved," she said.

There also is "no data anywhere to support" claims that irradiated foods can cause cancer in humans, Penner said. Irradiated food is not radioactive. The technology is capable of breaking apart the DNA in bacteria so that they cannot reproduce or grow in the food product.

In Minnesota, Dairy Queen has introduced irradiated hamburgers in two of its stores, combined with an extensive advertising and information campaign to educate its customers. The food chain’s preliminary report is that hamburger sales have remained constant compared to the year before.

Irradiated meat is not yet available in Kansas grocery stores, but Penner said consumers can buy irradiated hamburgers fairly easily through at least two companies: Schwan’s and Omaha Steaks. "In fact, all the ground beef offered by Schwan’s is now irradiated with an electron beam, which uses electricity as its power source," she said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that irradiated foods sold for retail must include the familiar radura symbol on the package label.

Penner said ongoing research is studying the future use of irradiation with many food products. She said that electron beam irradiation, which produces similar energy created by home electrical outlets, is gaining considerable momentum for use in the food industry.


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Pat Melgares, News Coordinator
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Karen Penner is at 785-532-1672