Irradiation of Raw Meat and Poultry
Questions & Answers
As part of its mission of preventing illness from the food we eat, the U.S. Department
of Agricultures Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) oversees the irradiation
of raw meat and poultry. Irradiation can increase the safety of the food supply and help
protect consumers from foodborne illness. However, this process is not a substitute for
good sanitation and safe food handling from the farm to the table. Here is some
information about this process that can make meat and poultry safer.
What is food irradiation?
Food irradiation is a process in which products are exposed to radiant energy including
gamma rays, electron beams, and x-rays in amounts approved by the Food and Drug
Irradiation is only one of many processes that can be used to prevent foodborne
illness. It is not a substitute for good manufacturing practices. Establishments that use
irradiation must meet the same sanitation and processing standards required by all meat
and poultry plants.
Why is food irradiated? What are the benefits?
Food is irradiated to make it safer. It can reduce the risk of foodborne illness by
destroying harmful bacteria, parasites, insects, and fungi.
Irradiation does not destroy all pathogens (very tiny disease-causing organisms) in
amounts approved by the FDA for refrigerated or frozen raw meat and poultry sold to
consumers, but it does reduce their number. To sterilize food (destroy all pathogens), a
higher amount of radiation must be used.
Hospitals have used irradiation for many years to sterilize food for cancer patients
and others with weakened immune systems. Some perishable food taken into space by
astronauts is irradiated because the food must be guaranteed free of disease-causing
It also reduces spoilage. Like freezing, canning, and drying, irradiation can also
extend the shelf life of perishable food products. For example, irradiated strawberries
stay unspoiled in the refrigerator up to 3 weeks versus only 3 to 5 days for untreated
Is irradiated food safe to eat?
Yes. Irradiated food is safe to eat. The FDA has evaluated the safety of irradiation
over the last 50 years and found it to be safe. Food irradiation has been approved in 37
countries for more than 40 food products. The process has been endorsed by the United
Nations World Health Organization, Codex Alimentarius Commission, American Medical
Association, and many others.
How is food irradiated?
At a food irradiation plant that uses gamma radiation, food is irradiated in an area
that is surrounded by concrete walls at least 6-feet thick which keep any rays from
escaping. The radiation source, usually Cobalt 60, is held in a resting position in a pool
of water. A conveyor system transports the meat or poultry product to the area. The
radiation source is then raised out of the water and the food is exposed for a defined
period of time. When the source is raised, lights and alarms are sounded to make people
aware that the product is being irradiated. Once the food is irradiated, the source
automatically returns to the resting position and the food leaves the area for further
If a machine source (for example, electron accelerator) is used, electricity to the
machine is switched on and a beam of electrons passes across the meat or poultry.
Which meat and poultry products may be irradiated?
Only refrigerated or frozen raw meat and poultry products, meat byproducts, and certain
other meat food products may be irradiated. Examples of meat and poultry that may be
irradiated are whole or cut-up birds, skinless poultry, pork chops, roasts, stew meat,
liver, hamburgers, and ground meat. Cooked meats and poultry products such as luncheon
meats and hot dogs may not be irradiated.
Are irradiated meat and poultry products inspected?
Yes. FSIS inspects all meat and poultry products, including those that are irradiated. Only USDA/FSIS federally inspected establishments and State-inspected
facilities that meet the same requirements specified in the Federal regulations are able
to irradiate meat.
Meat and poultry establishments that use irradiation must meet sanitation and Hazard
Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations. Additionally, FSIS conducts
microbial testing to be sure plants are producing wholesome products and to verify any
pathogen reduction claimed by the plant.
The irradiation facilities must obtain a grant of inspection, just like other meat and
poultry plants, in order to irradiate meat. Additionally, the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) have
regulations that all producers must meet who are using radioactive sources, including
machine sources and gamma sources, to irradiate meat and poultry. In areas where the NRC
and OSHA do not have offices, local governments have regulations for producers using
machine sources or gamma sources.
Are irradiated meat and poultry labeled?
Yes. FSIS requires that irradiated meat and poultry be properly labeled. And its
easy to see which packages have been irradiated. The "radura" logo (see symbol
below) must be on the label of packages of product where the entire content was
irradiated, as well as the phrase "treated by irradiation (or with radiation)."
If irradiated meat is used in a meat product such as pork sausage, the ingredient
statement must list "irradiated pork" as an ingredient. FSIS makes sure that
irradiated meat and poultry are sold with proper labeling.
If a producer uses the word "irradiated" in the product name, it is not
necessary for the producer to place the phrase "treated by irradiation (or with
radiation)" on the label. The "radura" logo must, however, be on the label.
Also, according to the USDAs Agricultural Marketing Service, foods labeled
"organic" may not be irradiated.
USDA/FSIS requires that all irradiated meat and poultry be labeled.
The international symbol for irradiation is called a radura. This symbol
is accompanied by the words such as "Treated by Irradiation" or
"Treated with Radiation."
Do you still need to cook irradiated meat?
Yes. Irradiation does not cook the meat or make it safe to eat raw. Eating raw meat
(like "steak tartare") or poultry is not safe. Irradiation reduces the harmful
bacteria; however, it does not the make meat or poultry product sterile (except for
limited situations for the space flight program and for specific uses in health care
institutions). The process doesnt replace proper cooking or food handling practices
by producers, retailers, and consumers.
Since irradiated meat is still raw and requires cooking, it is not safe to leave it out
of the refrigerator more than 2 hours because any harmful bacteria that survive
irradiation could multiply. Also, bacteria from any raw, including irradiated, meat can
recontaminate ready-to-eat food such as raw salad ingredients and cooked foods.
Are irradiated foods still nutritious?
Yes. Irradiated foods are wholesome and nutritious because irradiation
does not significantly change the nutrient content of food. It changes the nutrient value
of food about the same as cooking or freezing does. Irradiation produces virtually no heat
within food and changes flavor and texture very little.
Will irradiated meat and poultry cost more?
Yes. The estimate is two to five cents more per pound. However, consumers may decide
that the benefits from irradiation outweigh the extra cost.
Are irradiation plants safe?
Yes. The irradiation plants themselves do not become radioactive. Medical sterilization
facilities have operated in the U.S. for more than 30 years. There are now over 100 of
these facilities and at least as many medical radiation treatment centers and bone marrow
transplant centers which use radiation for certain treatments.
Facilities using Cobalt 60 as a source need to replace it about every 5 years. When the
solid metal cobalt "pencils" (radioactive sources) need replacement, they are
shipped in special hardened steel canisters that are designed and tested to survive
crashes without breaking. Because cobalt is a solid metal, even if something should break,
it will not spread through the environment.
What other purposes is irradiation used in the
U.S. food regulations also allow the irradiation of wheat and wheat powder; white
potatoes; 38 spices and dry vegetable seasonings, and fresh fruits. Irradiation is used
for the following non-food functions regulated by FDA: medical treatments; sterilizing
medical products, such as surgical gloves, bandages, and gauze; destroying bacteria in
cosmetics; making nonstick cookware coatings; and making tires more durable.
Food Safety and Inspection Service
Food Safety Education Staff
For more information, call:
USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline
1 (888) MPHotline
TTY: 1 (800) 256-7072
Web site: www.fsis.usda.gov
Other government sources of information:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
For Further Information Contact:
FSIS Food Safety Education Staff
Meat and Poultry Hotline:
Consumer Publications List | FSIS
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