Food irradiation is a method of food preservation. Irradiation damages contaminating microorganisms and prevents foods from spoiling, says Dr. Charlotte P. Brennand, Extension Food Safety Specialist at Idaho State University. Irradiation does not change the nutritional value of food and is considered safe to eat by the American Medical Association and the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the regulation of food irradiation and also determines what foods undergo irradiation.
The FDA approved the irradiation of herbs and spices in 1986, says the University of Wisconsin Food Irradiation Education Group. Herbs and spices are irradiated for microbial disinfection. Currently, only commercially available spices are irradiated. According to the Center for Infectious Disease and Research Policy, the irradiated spices are used as ingredients in prepared foods, specifically in ready-to-eat foods after they have been cooked. The foods containing irradiated spices do not require specific labeling says the CDC.
Fruits and vegetables received approval for food irradiation from the FDA in 1986. They are irradiated to control the insect population and prolong shelf life, explains the University of Wisconsin. According to the CDC, the only fruits currently being irradiated are tropical fruits from Hawaii and strawberries and other fruits from a facility in Florida.
The Organic Consumers Association says Hawaii Classic brand papayas are the only known Hawaiian fruits undergoing irradiation. Hawaiian fruits are irradiated to prevent the spread of fruit flies to the mainland, the CDC goes on to say. The facility in Florida is irradiating strawberries and other fruits to prolong shelf life. These irradiated fruits can be found in some grocery stores.
Meat irradiation requires separate approval from both the FDA and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Currently, only poultry and ground beef products are irradiated. The irradiated poultry is found in small independent grocery stores and on menus in some restaurants. Poultry received approval for irradiation in 1990 by the FDA and 1992 by the USDA. Irradiated ground beef is found in many supermarkets as fresh or frozen bulk ground meat or as patties, says the Cattlemen's Beef Board.
The irradiated ground meat may be a slightly darker red than non-irradiated ground meat and may be 5 to 20 cents more per pound, explains the Cattlemen's Beef Board. Meat received approval for irradiation in 1997 by the FDA and in 1999 by the USDA.
Both beef and poultry are irradiated to reduce bacterial pathogens. To identify irradiated poultry and ground beef products, look for the radura symbol on the package. An image of the symbol can be found in the resources section.