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Report on irradiated food

Aims of irradiating food

Irradiation with ionizing radiation is a method of conserving foodstuffs. It kills unwanted micro-organisms and insects which would lead to food spoilage or which pose a risk as a pathogen through the transference of infectious diseases. Irradiation can also prevent the premature ripening, sprouting or germination of foodstuffs.

Foodstuffs are irradiated in special facilities with ionizing radiation from the following sources:

  • Gamma irradiation from radionuclide 60Co or 137Cs
  • X-ray irradiation, which is generated by machines operated with a nominal energy (maximum quantum energy) of no more than five mega-electron volts
  • Electrons, which are generated by machines operated with a nominal energy (maximum quantum energy) of no more than ten mega-electron volts

The irradiation dose is measured in Gray. Irradiation does not make the food radioactive. The irradiation slightly degrades ingredients such as carbohydrates, proteins, fatty acids and vitamins. This is somewhat measurable but has no real significance for the nutrient content. Only minerals are completely unaffected.

Legal framework

In Germany there is a general ban on irradiation of foodstuffs. This is defined in Article 8 of the German Food and Feed Code (LFGB). German food irradiation law only permits the irradiation of dried, aromatic herbs and spices with a "maximum average absorbed total dose" of 10 Kilogray. All foodstuffs which are irradiated or which contain irradiated constituents must be labelled. This means that a herb cheese, which contains irradiated herbs, must be labelled as irradiated.

The legal position regarding irradiation of foodstuffs is not yet harmonised within the EU. The irradiation of other foodstuffs is permitted in some EU Member States. For example, in the UK, fish, poultry, cereal and fruit can be irradiated; in the Netherlands the irradiation of legumes, chicken meat, prawns and frozen frogs legs is permitted.

Because free movement of goods within the European Union must not be prevented, products which can be legally placed on the market in other Member States must also be permitted in Germany, as long as they are not harmful to health. However, they must always be labelled as irradiated.

The following are permitted in Germany, in deviation from the general ban stated above:

  • the irradiation of foodstuffs with neutrons for control and measurement purposes,
  • the irradiation of drinking water with ultraviolet radiation to sterilise it and
  • the irradiation of fruit and vegetable products and hard cheeses with ultraviolet radiation in storage.

The food irradiation law also includes a passage which permits indirect effects on foodstuffs caused by the sterilising of air using ultraviolet radiation.

Aim of monitoring - what is monitored?

Two questions are investigated as part of food monitoring.

  1. Are foodstuffs being offered for sale which have been irradiated illegally?
  2. Are irradiated foodstuffs labelled as such?

The food control enforcers take samples from foodstuffs in food companies, in wholesale and retail and have them tested in special laboratories. You can determine whether a foodstuff has been irradiated using photostimulated luminescence. The investigation offices routinely use this method as part of food control. In the sampling, foodstuffs or manufacturers and importers are sampled on a random basis, particularly those which in the past have already been queried due to violations concerning illegal irradiation or their lack of labelling.

Organisation of data collection

Foodstuffs are tested with regard to irradiation by the administrative bodies for food control from the district or cities as well as the federal state testing laboratories. The federal states forward their findings to the BVL in a pre-determined format. The BVL evaluates the data from the states and each year files a report on the food control of foodstuff irradiation with the EU Commission. It reports on the checks which were carried out in the irradiation facilities, particularly with regard to the groups and amount of products treated as well as the dose administered. Additionally, the results of controls when products are being brought to market are reported as well as the methods used to document the irradiation. Again, the EU Commission collects the reports from the Member States and publishes them on the internet. The BVL annual reports on irradiated foodstuffs as well as a link to the EU reports are available on the right-hand side of the page.

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© 2018 Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety