U.S. Food Irradiation FAQ - Food & Water Watch | Food & Water Watch
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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?

radura symbolIf 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?

Food Year Approved
Bacon 1963
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Bacon approval rescinded 1968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
Pork 1985
Fruit and vegetables 1986
Increase maximum radiation dose for spices, herbs and vegetable seasonings 1986
Poultry 1990
Beef,lamb,pork and horsemeat,and byproducts 1997
Fresh shell eggs 2000
Sprouting seeds 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.
  • Papaya
  • Guava
  • Longan fruit
  • Rambutan
  • Mango
  • Mangosteen
  • Dragon Fruit

Learn more: Irradiation in the Production, Processing, and Handling of Food