U.S. Food Irradiation FAQ
What is food irradiation?
Irradiation exposes food to a high dose of ionizing radiation, which comes from one of three sources: electron beam (electricity), cobalt 60 (nuclear waste byproduct), or cesium 137 (also a nuclear waste byproduct). It is intended to kill bacteria such as E. coli or Salmonella. It also extends shelf-life. However, studies have shown it depletes the nutritional content of food as well as leaving behind chemical byproducts in the food that can lead to promotion of tumor growth and genetic damage.
How can I tell if my food has been irradiated?
If you buy your food at the grocery store, it is required to be labeled with the radura symbol. It looks like this and has the words “treated with irradiation”. If you are buying a prepared food with multiple ingredients from the store, like frozen lasagna, look at the ingredients list to see if any of the ingredients have been irradiated. But if you order food in a restaurant, cafeteria or eat it at school, there are no laws requiring labeling.
Is my local school serving irradiated food?
Currently, it is unlikely. For the 2011-2012 school year, no states have requested irradiated ground beef (the only irradiated product available) from the USDA on behalf of their school districts. As far as we know, no school is receiving irradiated food through the federal nutrition programs, although schools do not have to label it if they do serve it. There is a slim possibility that schools could purchase irradiated food from a vendor outside of the USDA. Contact your school food service director to find out if they are serving irradiated food, and express your opposition to any attempt to do so.
How do Irradiators Work?
Irradiation facilities use gamma rays, x-rays, or electron beams to expose food to ionizing radiation that kills bacteria (but not viruses), extends shelf life, and kills pests like fruit flies. Many foods, like ground beef, are irradiated through their packaging.
Which foods can be irradiated?
|Wheat flour and potatoes||1964|
|Bacon approval rescinded||1968|
|Garlic powder, onion powder and dried spices||1983|
|Additional dried spices, herbs and vegetable seasonings, including blends||1985|
|Dry and hydrated enzymes||1985|
|Fruit and vegetables||1986|
|Increase maximum radiation dose for spices, herbs and vegetable seasonings||1986|
|Beef,lamb,pork and horsemeat,and byproducts||1997|
|Fresh shell eggs||2000|
|Fruit and vegetable juices||2000|
|Imported fruit and vegetables (for pest treatment)||2002|
|Ready-to-eat foods (i.e. deli meats, frozen foods)||2005|
|Molluscan shellfish (i.e. clams, oysters, mussels)||2008|
|Iceberg lettuce and spinach (for pathogen treatment)||2008|
|Crustacean shellfish (i.e. shrimp, crabs, lobster)||Pending|
|Increase maximum radiation dose for poultry||Pending|
|Unrefrigerated beef, lamb, pork and house meat, and byproducts||Pending|
Which Irradiated Foods Are Commercially Available?
While the Food and Drug Administration has approved irradiation for many types of food, a much smaller number of irradiated foods are actually commercially available. The foods listed here are those that some companies are irradiating, but not all of the foods listed here are always irradiated. Look for the radura symbol and “treated with irradiation” or a similar label on the package to determine if food you see in the store has been irradiated.
- Spices (primarily used in food processing)
- Ground Beef: A small amount of irradiated ground beef is sometimes offered by mail order companies like Omaha Beef and some grocery chains, including Wegmans in the northeastern United States.
- Longan fruit
- Dragon Fruit