Alternatives to food irradiation



Updated January 9, 2005

Stop Food Irradiation Project HOME Alternatives to Food Irradiation

Why we have a problem... May 13, 2000: The USDA has "given away the shop" to the meat industry, says head of meat inspectors union. "In the 1950s we condemned carcasses with fecal contamination, in the 1970s it was cut off, in the 1980s it was washed off and in the 1990s it is eaten."

General treatments for contaminated or infested foods

Current situation in meat plants

As detailed in the "Fact Sheet: New Technologies" from the American Meat Institute, a variety of technologies are being used in 50-90% of American meat plants. Carcass rinsing with hot water, organic acids and trisodium phosphate are being tested. Ozonation uses water infused with ozone molecules to reduce/eliminate bacterial contamination. Steam pasteurization (a burst of superheated steam for less than one second) "effectively pasteurizes the exterior of the carcass just before it enters the cooler." Steam and hot water vacuums remove visible dirt or debris aseptically (this replaces the previous practice of trimming off the contamination).


Heat treatment seems to be the least toxic alternative. Ethylene oxide (ETO) has been used, but is a probable carcinogen and, like methyl bromide, depletes ozone. Irradiation is widely used.

Frontier Coop, a company that sells nonirradiated spices, says "There are several chemical alternatives to ETO sterilization. Irradiation and exposure to methyl bromide are the most common. Unfortunately, these sterilization methods pose as many, if not more, threats than ETO does. There are currently very few natural alternatives to ETO. Heat sterilization, although useful in some spices, is not suitable for treating all spices because of the sensitivity of their aroma and flavor components. Natural fumigation methods, like the use of CO2 chambers, will kill bugs and their eggs but won't sterilize." (source) Frontier uses heat treatment and a rigorous testing program.

Sulphur Dioxide Gas Fumigation.
A sterilization trial on contaminated desicated coconut was quite sucessful, giving reductions in bacteria of up 1000 times. Levels of SO2 added were typically 50 ppm based on weight of material. After allowing product to outgas after a few days, treatment residues were negligable. SO2 gas fumigation may be an option for some spices. Contact R.H.Molony <>.

Fresh juices

Cinnamon is a lethal weapon against E. coli in unpasteurized juice.

Food extracts of highly flavored foods, including vanilla, cinnamon, pepper and almond, contain compounds that inhibit growth of bacteria. The technology is under investigation at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fresh fruits

January 9, 2005: New coating for fruits and vegetables

September 26, 2002: Chlorine Dioxide Gas Kills Bacteria on Fruits and Vegetables

Alternatives to methyl bromide, from the US EPA.

A page of resources on alternatives to methyl bromide, from Pesticide Action Network.

1) Prevention by keeping facilities clean and culling out infested fruits and vegetables
2) Heat treatments
3) Cold treatments (These treatments increase or decrease the temperature of the fruit or vegetable for short periods of time, killing the pests)
4) Controlling the atmospheres of shipping containers (where CO2 or nitrogen is kept high and oxygen is kept low, suffocating pests)
5) Treatment with other toxic chemicals including sulfuryl fluoride methyl iodide, and carbonyl sulfide

July 3, 2002: Ozone is a very promising alternative to irradiation.

January 9, 2001: Fruit coating technology from Planet Polymer Technologies extend the shelf life of fruit and vegetables and also helps lengthen the growing/harvest season for produce products. It controls the respiration rate of the fruit and is commercially available for mangoes and cantaloupe. In addition, the technology is being tested for papaya, limes avocados, bananas and pineapples.'

For disinfestation of fruit flies: Hot forced air, hot and cold treatments.

Meat and Poultry

See detailed article about cetylpyridinium chloride, lactoferrin, acidified sodium chlorite, and vaccines. (November 2000)

May 31, 2002: Quick Pasteurization Kills Listeria in Lunch Meats

May 1, 2001: Company develops fast test for E. coli (which is caused by fecal contamination).


Jan 10, 2002: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved the use of activated lactoferrin on fresh beef. Activated lactoferrin is an all-natural protein found in milk and dairy products. It has been shown to protect fresh beef against E. coli O157:H7 and more than 30 different types of pathogenic bacteria, including Salmonella and Campylobacter. The technology is unique in that it prevents pathogenic bacteria from attaching to meat surfaces, in addition to preventing growth.

September 19, /2001-The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will permit a mixture of peroxyacetic acid, octanoic acid, acetic acid, hydrogen peroxide, peroxyoctanoic acid, and 1-hydroxyethylidene-1,1-diphosphonic acid as an antimicrobial agent on poultry carcasses, poultry parts, and organs. The action is in response to a petition filed by Ecolab, Inc. Details of the ruling were published in the Federal Register of September 19, 2001 (Volume 66, Number 182)]

June 14, 2001: FDA and USDA approved SANOVA antimicrobial for control of bacteria in comminuted and formed meat products (principally hot dogs and ready-to-eat sausages) as well as fruits and vegetables. It is now in use in 30 plants to disinfect more than five billion pounds of chicken on an annual basis.

January 11, 2001: Nymox Pharmaceutical Corp. announced that tests conducted at the Department of Food Science at the University of Manitoba demonstrated that the company's novel proprietary antibacterial agent, NXC 4720, completely eliminated E. coli 0157:H7 in a laboratory model of a livestock gut.

Plant oils kill pathogens. In laboratory experiments, the essential oils carvacrol and thymol, available from common herbal plants, in quantities as low as 1 gram in one-half-liter slurries of cattle feces and urine completed blocked formations of foul-smelling volatile fatty acids. E. coli and other potentially harmful bacteria were also reduced in the manure. Scientists are now taking their research to manure in the feedlot to field test against E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens. From the USDA Agricultural Research Service

ARS develops new method to reduce farm pathogens - feeding sodium chlorate
March 6, 2001-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers have developed a new approach to reducing Salmonella typhimurium and E. coli O157:H7 in pigs and cows. The scientists report that sodium chlorate, fed in low doses to pigs and cows before slaughter, selectively kills these pathogens. The scientists in the ARS Food and Feed Safety Research Unit in College Station developed an animal model showing that sodium chlorate reduces these bacteria in the animal intestinal tract. The USDA has applied for a patent on behalf of the inventors, ARS microbiologists Robin C. Anderson and David J. Nisbet in College Station and Larry H. Stanker in Albany, Calif. The researchers are seeking a cooperative research partner to further develop the work for commercial meat processing. Besides adding the chlorate to feed, the researchers suggest adding chlorate to drinking water for the animals upon arrival at the processing facility. However, the FDA would need to approve any wide-scale use of the technique in food processing facilities. For more details, see the March issue of Agricultural Research online at:

Improving farming practices

At a government-sponsored conference on food safety, federal officials said improving farming practices was the most promising way to prevent foodborne illnesses. It is "one of the areas that gets the least amount of attention and one that is the most important to improving food safety," said Stephen Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine. Research is under way on vaccines that would prevent cattle from carrying the bacteria, on feed additives that would eliminate it from the animals, and new methods of composting manure so it can be used as fertilizer without contaminating crops or ground water.


September 24, 2001: The FDA approved ozone for use in all food processing activities in June 2001. Cyclopss Corporation announced today that following the recent FDA approval of ozone that it has successfully completed its first contract for an in-plant test of its Eco Pure(TM) Food Safety System for poultry processing. Plans are also being discussed with this processor to test an Eco Pure(TM) System in a separate plant that produces other poultry products.

Ozone does not have the problem of ever-increasing costs associated with disposing of chlorine laden post-processing wastewater. Because ozone converts back into oxygen during the act of killing microorganisms, it produces far less polluted wastewater for the processor to deal with.

Gamma rays and electron-beams are not the only things that can kill disease-causing organisms in food: chlorine, steam, pressure, laser light and ozone. Ozone is an unstable. three-atom form of oxygen. When ozone comes unstuck, it forms one two-atom oxygen molecule and one lone oxygen atom. This atom is highly reactive, and it can burst the cell wall of a bacterium rapidly. For this reason, it is a better disinfectant than chlorine, a tried-and-true microbe killer that's used throughout the food industry. The Food and Drug Administration has put ozone in the "generally recognized as safe" category, allowing it to skip regulatory hurdles that would otherwise keep it out of the food industry. Treatment with ozone-bearing water kills upwards of 90 percent of pathogens on surfaces.Ozone can be retrofitted almost immediately into a plant that uses water in its processing.

Change in cattle diets

Scientists discover that simple change in cattle diets before slaughter effectively eliminates E. coli O157:H7.


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