In its comprehensive advice to EU policy makers, EFSA’s BIOHAZ panel looked at the efficacy and microbiological safety of the process, and EFSA’s CEF panel looked at possible risks arising from the formation of several chemical substances as a result of food irradiation.
Food irradiation, although effective, should be considered only as one of several processes which can reduce the presence of pathogens in food, experts relay. Irradiation should be part of an integrated food safety management program to protect consumers, which includes good agricultural, manufacturing and hygienic practices.
Most of the substances formed in food by irradiation are also formed during other types of food processing, with levels comparable to those arising, for instance, from the heat treatment of foods, the experts added.
A very limited quantity of food consumed in Europe is irradiated today. The only new evidence pointing to possible adverse health effects concerns some recent studies reporting neurological problems in cats fed exclusively with animal feed, which were irradiated at extremely high doses. These effects were found only in cats.
Neither the causes nor the mechanism, which could explain the development of the neurological problems observed, are clarified in these studies. More research is required to assess the possible relevance of these studies for human health.
Decisions on foods that can be irradiated and on the doses used should not be based only on predefined food categories, as is currently the case, the panels recommend. Decisions should also be based on factors such as the bacteria concerned; level of bacterial reduction required; and whether the food is fresh, frozen, dried or on the food’s fat or protein content. Decisions on the type of food that can be irradiated should also take into account the diversity of food products nowadays available to consumers, such as ready-to-eat foods.