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" beef)

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:

    South Africa
    Czech Republic Denmark
    United Kingdom
    United States

      Countries that have approved food irradiation

      Russian Federation
      Costa Rica

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 vegetable seasonings.
  • 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

  • In February 1999, the FDA asked for public comments on a proposal to change the labeling requirements for all irradiated foods. It is currently writing the regulation.* The FDA will ask the public for comments again, by end of 2002. Everyone should comment on the proposed regulation when it is released! Please contact us so we can notify you!

    *Note: In spring 2002 Congress passed a bill that tells the FDA it's ok to use the term "pasteurized" on irradiation labels. So, we expect that the FDA's proposed regulation will allow that misleading terminology.

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 interstate.

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..

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