Are You Eating Irradiated Seafood?

To combat filthy conditions, the U.S. government is going to allow irradiation of certain seafood favorites, a food safety watchdog group says.

April 14, 2014

Effective immediately, some of your favorite seafood picks will be allowed to undergo radiation treatment in an attempt to kill more pathogens lurking in the food supply.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says things like shrimp, crab, lobster, crayfish, and prawns are now allowed to undergo ionizing radiation treatment—and you won't always find irradiated seafood on the menu.

The National Fisheries Institute petitioned the FDA to allow ionized radiation in seafood and FDA approved it, saying the maximum dosage of irradiation approved is capable of reducing a number of pathogens that may be found in crustaceans, including Listeria, Vibrio, and E. coli.

Still, the agency warns that irradiation is not a substitute for proper food-handling practices, and consumers should still store, handle, and cook seafood the same way and non-irradiated foods.

Irradiated seafood will feature a special label signifying the animal underwent radiation treatment, but here's the catch: If it's an ingredient in a processed food—say shrimp in a frozen entrée or salad—you won't see any mention of irradiation on the label. Irradiated seafood served in restaurants don't need to carry a disclaimer on the label, either.

The irradiated seafood rule—which went into effect April 14—covers raw, frozen, cooked, partially cooked, shelled, or dried crustaceans, or cooked, or ready-to-cook, crustaceans processed with spices or small amounts of other food ingredients.

"At the maximum permitted dose, this new use of ionizing radiation will reduce, but not entirely eliminate, the number of pathogenic (illness causing) microorganisms in or on crustaceans," an FDA release recently announced.

But other consumer and food safety watchdog groups believe the approval to irradiate more seafood is just a way to deal with unsanitary conditions found in shrimp and other seafood operations overseas.

"We import over 80 percent of our seafood, and much of that comes from countries in Asia, such as the People's Republic of China, that raise their seafood in squalid conditions," says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "The expansion of irradiation to cover more seafood products will allow those countries to continue to raise their seafood products in filthy and unsanitary factory fish farms, since irradiation will be used as the 'magic bullet' to make the products safe to eat from microbiological contaminants."

Hauter also says her group see the announcement as being tied to negotiations of the new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, where we will see a further expansion of imported seafood from Asia and a weakening of our food safety requirements for imported food products.

The new irradiated seafood rule will greatly impact shrimp, since the U.S. imports 90 percent of the shrimp we eat.

And according to Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist with Food & Water Watch, irradiated seafood receiving the highest allowable dose could be reduced to mush. He told Rodale News chemical byproducts could also be formed that might be harmful.  

More From Rodale News: 7 Disgusting Facts About Shrimp

The FDA says consumers will continue to be able to identify irradiated foods, including crustaceans, by the presence of the irradiation statement and symbol on the label. For foods not in package form, the logo and phrase must be displayed to the purchaser with either the labeling of the bulk container plainly in view or a counter sign, car, or other appropriate device bearing the information that the product has been treated with radiation. 

For more ways to make better seafood choices, according to our experts, check out The Seafood You Should (and Shouldn't) Eat