Status Update on Food Irradiation
Updated July 5, 2002
Note: Any foods legally approved for irradiation by FDA and USDA can be irradiated
anywhere and imported. Attempts to irradiate food abroad and export it to the U.S. are accelerating. Most irradiated
foods do not need to be labeled to the consumer,
according to FDA policy.
Which companies are irradiating in the US: now and in the near future?
- Companies that produce over 75% of the U.S.'s 9 billion pounds/year of ground beef and approximately 50% of
the nearly 35 billion pounds/year of poultry have signed agreements to use irradiation technology. The only way
to know how much of their products are irradiated now is to ask the company. Most irradiated product--primarily
hamburger and chicken--is going to restaurants and other food service and is not labeled to the consumer.
- Currently using irradiation for meat/poultry: Dairy Queen (testing it in Minnesota, planning rollout
to rest of the country), Wegman's, Huisken's of Minnesota (ground beef, 22 states); Schwan's home delivery (ground
beef); Omaha Steaks; Tyson, IBP (now owned
by Tyson) (ground beef), Excel (ground beef - the U.S. Dept. of Defense plans to buy irradiated beef from Excel),
Emmpak (ground beef), Colorado Boxed Beef (poultry); WW Johnson Meat Company (ground beef for the food service
industry); Kenosha Beef International (ground beef; it supplies Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Target, A&W
Restaurants, Dairy Queen, Hardee's, and Hot'N Now Hamburgers); Nation's Pride (chicken to restaurants and food
service); Rochester Meat (ground beef products, portion cut steaks and pork, for the foodservice industry).
- Currently using irradiation for nonmeat foods: Some Hawaiian papayas (Hawaii Classics brand); some fruits
and vegetables from Florida; spices, herb teas and supplement ingredients like garlic (unknown quantities).
- Planning to use irradiation in the near future: Miami-based Bounty Fresh, an importer and national distributor
of fresh fruits and vegetables; Hormel (refrigerated meat products, like hot dogs); United Food Group (Supreme
Packing Co., Miller Beef, Moran's Ground Beef) Los Angeles (ground beef products); American Foodservice Corporation,
supplier for major U.S. fast food and casual dining chains including Burger King (fresh and frozen beef patties);
Del Monte (products "packaged in glass or plastic," probably salad mixes or cut-up fruit); Kraft ( ready-to-eat
meat products); SCIS Food Services (ready-to-eat foods). SCIS operates numerous facilities for salad, bakery, side
dish and entree production throughout the USA and Mexico, including the Orval Kent Food Company, Pennant Foods,
La Francaise Bakery, Ozark Salad Company, Landau Foods and I&K Distributors.
- Interested but not committed to using irradiation: Sizzler Restaurants; Wal-Mart ("case-ready"
Where are the irradiation facilities?
- Approximately 50 other irradiation facilities around the country. These irradiate mostly non-food items, but
foods approved by the FDA may be irradiated there as well. In the last 3 years, new facilities have been built
in Chicagoland, Arkansas, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Long Island, Missouri. The only nuclear facility that irradiates
any substantial amount of foods has been operating for about 9 years in Mulberry, Florida.
- Irradiation facilities are under construction or planned in Australia, Brazil, Japan, Philippines (mangos),
Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Vietnam, Guatemala, and Mexico
- According to the University of California Extension, countries with commercial irradiation of food are:
Czech Republic Denmark
Countries that have approved food irradiation
Which foods are approved for irradiation in the US?
- Seeds that will be used for sprouting (like alfalfa and clover).The sprouts will NOT be labeled as irradiated
unless they are also irradiated.
- Beef, pork, lamb, poultry, fruits, vegetables, wheat, wheat flour, eggs in the shell, herbs, spices, dried
- Foods not yet requested for irradiation are: dairy (which is already pasteurized), dried legumes/beans, sugars,
nuts, honey and coffee.
- Bacon was approved for irradiation in 1963. The approval was rescinded in 1968 because animals fed irradiated
bacon showed adverse health effects. These effects were probably due to fat oxidation (the fat becomes rancid quickly).
The fact that fats become rancid quickly explains why nuts are not approved for irradiation in the U.S.
- Organic foods cannot be irradiated. But the term "natural" for foods does not exclude irradiation.
Some nutritional supplement ingredients like garlic are irradiated.
Possible additional foods that will be approved for irradiation in the U.S.
- The FDA is considering allowing irradiation for deli meats, frozen foods, prepared fresh foods (like prepackaged
shredded carrots), and fresh juices. The FDA will probably approve this petition in Summer 2002.
- The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is considering allowing irradiation for imported
fruits and vegetables. The irradiation could be done in the U.S. or in the country of origin.
- A petition to irradiate crustaceans is under consideration.
Upcoming regulatory changes for labeling
Who's responsible for irradiation policy?
The FDA is responsible for evaluation of the existing scientific evidence on whether or not irradiation is harmful
(as it does for new drugs). It is also responsible for writing the policy on the permitted doses and labeling of
irradiation for nonmeat products, and the enforcement of that policy.
The USDA is responsible for writing the policy on the permitted doses and labeling of irradiation for meat,
poultry and their products, and the enforcement of that policy.
No law prevents states from passing their own labeling laws, but in practice their right to label (under Amendment
X to the Constitution) has consistently been overturned IF the labeling 'impeded' interstate commerce. Only in
unusual cases should we expect a state-level labeling law to survive legal challenges from businesses that operate
The most powerful players: Congress and the food industry (which influences Congress):
CONGRESS: Congress tells the FDA what to do. The FDA must carry out the will of Congress. So if Congress
passes legislation that says "Invent a new word for irradiation that won't scare people, and also make sure
that all irradiated products which must be labeled use that new word by March 2002," the FDA has to carry
out that policy. Depending on the type of policy, the FDA may or may not ask for public comments on its decision
before actually putting it into action.
The public tends to ignore food issues, unless they are from farm states. Large agricultural businesses have
a great deal of influence over farm-state and Western Senators as well as some Representatives. As a result, agribusiness
and food processors tend to set the agenda in Congress, because Members from urban and suburban districts often
vote on food issues without having to pay for their votes politically. Also, urban and suburban Members can easily
pay back a campaign contributor with a vote that benefits the food industry rather than the public. For urban and
suburban Members, votes on food issues can be 'traded' without much expectation of consumer backlash.
THE FOOD INDUSTRY: The food industry (producer associations, processors associations, grocers) influences
Congress by campaign contributions. It practically "owns" the USDA, especially the Food Safety and Inspection
Service. (The head of the FSIS under President Clinton, the pro-industry Tom Billy, is also chairman of the Codex
Alimentarius, the international body that harmonizes food regulations in the interest of easier trade. The Codex
is currently planning to eliminate ALL science-based limits on irradiation doses)
The Clinton administration was just as 'friendly' to deregulation-seeking meat and poultry producers as previous
Republican administrations and the G.W. Bush administration..