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Child Nutrition> Issues > Irradiated Ground Beef


What is irradiation?

Food irradiation is a process used to preserve food and improve its quality. Irradiation using electronic beams is a relatively new, but thoroughly tested and approved method in the processing of meat products. It is used to eliminate bacteria, including E. coli, that can cause serious illness.  By applying a type of radiant energy to the food, disease causing bacteria are killed. Irradiation is sometimes referred to as cold pasteurization.

Why irradiate?

The are several reasons why irradiation is used in food processing:

· To reduce the risk of food borne illness: by reducing the population of harmful bacteria and parasites which can cause food borne illness.
· To reduce spoilage: by reducing the numbers of bacteria, molds and yeast which can cause food to spoil and by controlling insect pests and parasites
· To increase shelf life: by slowing the ripening or sprouting in fresh fruits and vegetables.

Is irradiation safe?

The evidence from over 40 years of research ensures that irradiated food is safe to eat. Every major health organization including the USDA, FDA, American Dietetic Association, American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Mayo clinic, U. S. Surgeon General and over 50 countries have endorsed irradiation for food safety. The non- nuclear electron beam technology does not generate any radioactive or nuclear waste or radioactivity in the food. There is no evidence of toxic substances resulting from irradiation, nor is there any reason to expect survival of more virulent bacteria. American astronauts have eaten irradiated foods in space since the early 1970s. Food products including spices, wheat flour and potatoes have been treated with irradiation for 20 years. Irradiation reduces the numbers of microorganisms that may cause illness and eliminates insect pests. Irradiation causes minor changes in food, similar to cooking, and some irradiated foods may taste slightly different. Food irradiation has been studied for more than 40 years and is an effective way to enhance food safety. Irradiated foods are safe to eat. At permitted levels, irradiation does not lower the nutritional value of food. Irradiated food is not radioactive. The food and drug regulations place upper limits on the energy levels allowed for treatment of foods. No radioactive energy remains in the food after treatment.

The safety of irradiated foods has been endorsed by organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S.

Does Irradiation effect nutrition and taste?

Irradiated foods are wholesome and nutritious because irradiation does not compromise the nutritional quality of treated products.  At the doses used, the nutrition changes are less than or about the same as freezing or cooking. Proteins and mineral content are unaffected. Irradiated fresh ground beef is a good source of protein, iron and zinc. Since the irradiation process does not heat or cook the food, the texture and taste are of the same high quality as regular ground beef.

Will all ground beef items purchased by USDA be subject to irradiation?

No. New product lines specifically for irradiated ground beef items will be added to USDA’s current list of ground beef items offered to participants in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The new product lines will offer an additional food safety assurance through the application of the irradiation process for those NSLP schools that choose to order these products. As of January 2004, schools will have a choice between irradiated and non-irradiated ground beef. This is the same approach that many supermarkets are following with their customers.

Will only irradiated ground beef items be offered to NSLP participants?

No. Schools participating in the NSLP will be offered both irradiated and non-irradiated ground beef items. Whether to order is a local school decision.

Do I need to handle irradiated beef differently?

No. You should handle irradiated fresh ground beef as you would any perishable food item. Just as pasteurized milk needs to be refrigerated, handled and stored properly, irradiated fresh ground beef should also be refrigerated, handled and prepared properly. 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 harmful bacteria; however, it does not make the meat or poultry product sterile (except for limited situations for the space flight program and for specific uses in health care institutions). The process doesn't’t replace proper cooking or safe food handling practices by producers, retailers, and consumers.  The U. S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking to 160 degrees F.

When handling any perishable food, we recommend that you carefully follow all food safety guidelines when preparing and cooking:

  • Wash hands and surfaces often
  • Separate. Don’t cross- contaminate food products.
  • Cook to proper temperature, 160°F. for ground beef.
  • Refrigerate promptly.


Can irradiated beef be identified in the ingredients statement of a multi-ingredient product?

Yes. Irradiated beef can be listed in the ingredients statement either as "Irradiated beef," or "Beef, treated by irradiation." The acceptability of similar identifications of irradiated ingredients will be handled on a case-by-case basis

Do point-of-purchase labeling requirements apply to restaurants?

No. There are no labeling requirements for irradiated products at restaurants. However, FSIS is aware of several restaurants that voluntarily disclose irradiation information on menus and encourages this type of disclosure

Can an irradiated product be labeled as "natural" or "certified Organic by (a certifying entity)?"

No. The term "natural" can not be used since FSIS considers irradiation to be more than minimal processing. Thus, such products would not meet the "natural" criteria established by Policy Memo 55. Regarding the use of "certified Organic by (a certifying entity)," we are not aware of any organization providing organic certification that allows the use of irradiation. Further, on March 13, 2000, AMS issued a re-proposed regulation on organic agricultural products which does not permit the use of irradiation on products labeled "organic."

Why will USDA be offering irradiated ground beef for distribution in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP)?

The 2002 Farm Bill states that USDA “shall not prohibit the use of any technology to improve food safety that has been approved by the Secretary of Agriculture or has been approved or is otherwise allowed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services” for use in various commodity purchase programs. This includes irradiation.

Protecting the public from food borne illnesses is a top priority for USDA. Irradiation was approved by USDA as a safe intervention tool for use on raw meat and poultry products in 1999. Schools will have a choice whether to accept irradiated product. For that product which is irradiated, the irradiation will supplement existing food safety requirements. It is not a substitute for proper hygiene, good sanitation practices, and safe-handling and preparation practices in the processing plant and school cafeterias. Nearly two dozen supermarket chains now provide irradiated meat for their customers in some 30 states across the country. Two major restaurant chains offer irradiated meat products in 145 establishments in the Upper Midwestern States.

When will USDA start offering irradiated ground beef products to schools?

Product specifications will be released May 29, 2003, and schools will have the option to order irradiated beef beginning January 2004. This allows ample time for schools to educate parents and the community so that informed decisions can be made. Should schools decide to order product, this also allows schools ample time to notify parents. In addition, irradiated beef manufacturers will have the opportunity to study and implement the specifications prior to orders from schools in January. The decision to order and serve irradiated ground beef will be left to each school food authority.

What will be done to prepare schools for the introduction of irradiated ground beef products?

Farm Bill conference report language indicates that USDA should consider “the acceptability by recipients of products purchased” by USDA for commodity distribution. Therefore, before irradiated ground beef products are made available for order by schools, USDA will make every effort to encourage schools to educate food service personnel, parents, and the community concerning irradiated ground beef products. Shortly after the release of specifications, FNS will provide all school districts with an informational package to help them to decide whether to order irradiated beef products beginning January 2004. The package will be mailed in June 2003 and will include a letter from Under Secretary Bost strongly encouraging schools to notify parents, students, and the community if they are planning to order irradiated beef. In addition, the package will include a brochure with answers to commonly asked questions about irradiation. This letter will also include Web site addresses for the brochure as well as the site for the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) irradiation consumer information. The letter will give information regarding the community educational materials currently under development by the State of Minnesota that will be available to schools in fall 2003.

The educational materials developed, tested and evaluated by Minnesota will be unveiled at the American School Food Service Association annual meeting in July and will be delivered to FNS shortly thereafter with availability targeted for fall 2003. The materials have been specifically designed to educate communities, parents, students, teachers, school food service personnel, and school administrators. Educational materials will emphasize the fact that irradiation does not replace existing food safety requirements for preparing ground beef for distribution in the NSLP. Materials will explain that irradiation is a food safety measure which supplements currently required proper hygiene, good sanitation practices, and safe-handling and preparation practices in the processing plant and school cafeterias.

Will parents and students be able to distinguish hamburgers, chili, and other food offerings that have been prepared with irradiated ground beef?

Local schools will decide how to notify parents and students. While USDA does not have the authority to require that schools inform parents and children, as part of the educational campaign being developed, USDA will strongly encourage schools to take steps to communicate this information to parents and students in an effective manner - such as a letter to parents at the start of the school year, Web site posting, clear communication via the monthly menu, and/or appropriate signage on the serving line.

Will irradiated product be marked to distinguish it from non-irradiated product?

Yes.  Individual shipping containers received by schools containing irradiated product will be clearly marked indicating that the product has been irradiated, and will bear the international Radura logo.

In general, what is the proportion of USDA products versus commercially purchased products that are used by schools in the NSLP?

In general, schools receive about 20 percent of the products they serve from USDA, with the remaining 80 percent purchased from local suppliers. However, within the 20 percent provided by USDA, USDA provides nearly all of the NSLP schools’ annual needs for meat, poultry, and cheese. These specifications only apply to products purchased by USDA.

What types of meat and poultry products can be irradiated?

Only refrigerated or frozen raw meat and poultry products, meat byproducts, and certain other meat food products may be irradiated at this time. 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 meat and poultry products such as luncheon meats and hot dogs can not be irradiated at this time, but FDA is formally reviewing a petition to permit this application of irradiation.

Are irradiated meat and poultry labeled?

 Yes. FSIS requires that irradiated meat and poultry be properly labeled. And it’s easy to see which packages have been irradiated. The “radura” logo, as well as the phrase “treated by irradiation (or with radiation),” must be on the label of packages of product where the entire content was irradiated.

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 processor uses the word “irradiated” in the product name, it is not necessary for the processor to place the phrase “treated by irradiation (or with radiation)” on the label. The “radura” logo must, however, be on the label. More information on labeling irradiated meat and poultry products is available at USDA web site.

How long has irradiation been used as a food safety technology? Who approved the use of irradiation and when?

FDA, in July 1985, and FSIS, in January 1986, issued rules to allow pork to be irradiated to control Trichina. In May 1990, FDA declared irradiation safe for use in poultry. In February 1992, FSIS issued a final rule for use of irradiation in raw packaged poultry. In December 1997, FDA determined that irradiation of raw meat is safe and in December 1999, FSIS issued a final rule to permit the use of irradiation to treat refrigerated or frozen raw meat and meat products. In 1999, FDA was petitioned by an industry coalition to allow the use of irradiation to treat ready-to-eat meat and poultry products to control Listeria monocytogenes. FDA is actively reviewing the petition and consulting with the petitioner.


Has irradiation been thoroughly studied?

FDA approved irradiation of meat and poultry products after a thorough scientific review of a substantial number of studies conducted worldwide on the effects of irradiation on a wide variety of products. The studies included examination of the chemical effects of radiation, impact on nutrient content of irradiated products, potential toxicity concerns, and effects on microorganisms in or on irradiated products. FDA concluded that irradiation is safe in reducing disease-causing microbes and that it does not compromise the nutritional quality of treated products.


What other purposes is irradiation used in the U.S.?

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.



USDA Irradiation of Raw Meat and Poultry Questions and Answers

Consumer Reports Magazine


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Food Irradiation: A Safe Measure
 - Gateway to government food safety information

Center For Consumer Research

Organic Consumers Association

American Medical Association
Logo and Link to the Food Safety and Inspection Service Home Page

Food Safety and Inspection Service
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C.  20250-3700 

Irradiation Updates


Food Irradiation 

State of Maine Department of Education information letter