Irradiated Spinach and Iceberg Lettuce may Kill Certain Bacteria: FDA

Irradiated Spinach and Iceberg Lettuce may Kill Certain Bacteria: FDA

After two years of nearly constant food-borne illness outbreaks and recalls of everything from tainted peanut butter to tons of hamburger meat, the Food and Drug Administration's decision last week to allow the irradiation of lettuce and spinach to kill dangerous bacteria didn't surprise anyone in the food industry.


Nor did it solve a long-simmering debate over whether the agency's penchant for prescribing such technical fixes to biological problems makes sense. There are strong feelings on both sides of the argument, and the lettuce/spinach decision brought them once again to the surface.

Zapping spinach and iceberg lettuce with a tiny shot of radiation is an effective way to prevent deadly outbreaks of E. coli, according to the FDA, which says it's safe. But not everyone agrees.

Great news for your health -- beginning today, the US Food and Drug Administration says your spinach and iceberg lettuce can be irradiated to kill certain bacteria. Why should you care? Because irradiating food is better than the alternative, which is food contaminated with E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria, Toxoplasma or other multisyllabic biological agents making the headlines regularly lately.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these organisms currently cause millions of infections and thousands of hospitalizations in the United States every year from people getting violently sick. Yes, people actually die from eating everyday foods like hamburger, unpasteurized fruit juice, and spinach unknowingly contaminated with bacteria, viruses, insects, and microorganisms. And all destroyed in with irradiation in about two seconds.

Radiation effectively kills bacteria, so lettuce tainted carrying e-coli would not hurt you. But as Dr. Samuel Epstein told the CBC a few years ago: "You could have fecal material in that and if it had been irradiated, it wouldn't harm you. But do you want to have fecal material in your food? Of course you don't."- it could be used as a substitute for hygienic practices and proper washing.

In addition to controlling harmful bacteria and other microorganisms, irradiating fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach will allow the greens to keep longer without spoiling.

The foods affected by the final rule are

What does that mean?

Irradiation is ionizing radiation, applied to food as gamma rays from radioisotopes, or electron beams or X-rays from machines. It penetrates into food to kill germs, and also kills insects on the surface of foods. Irradiation extends a product’s shelf life.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association of America asked the FDA to approve irradiation of leafy greens several years ago. Many consumer groups opposed it, instead pressing the FDA to impose more stringent farm-to-table safety standards.

The FDA approval only includes iceberg lettuce and spinach; other leafy greens, like romaine lettuce, may be added later. And the FDA continues to advise consumers to wash all leafy greens, including irradiated ones, before eating them.

Irradiation of Other Foods?

Many foods are already permitted to be irradiated to control bacteria and keep the foods longer without spoiling. For example, FDA approved the irradiation of red meat in 1997 after reviewing numerous scientific studies conducted worldwide on the effects of irradiation on various meat products. Other examples of foods that may be irradiated to kill microbes include spices, poultry, and molluscan shellfish (such as oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops).

FDA has previously allowed lettuce, spinach, and some other foods to be irradiated to kill insects or to slow spoilage. However, the doses used for these purposes are lower than what is required to kill most disease-causing bacteria.

"It's the latest in a series of PR moves designed to mislead the public from the fact that the government is asleep at the wheel here," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, an organic food watchdog group.

Randy Huffman, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, which favors irradiation of food, holds a different view.

"Any group that is opposed to a proven, safe technology that enhances food safety is misguided," Huffman said.

The FDA's irradiation decision is the latest attempt to find a technical fix to what has become a near-epidemic food safety problem.

Whether consumers will accept irradiated lettuce and spinach is an open question. Irradiated meat, for example, is hard to find in most stores.

Meat, however, isn't the only irradiated food available. Some imported produce is irradiated, as are some spices. And irradiated food has to carry a label explaining that it was treated.

Each FDA decision has broadened the philosophical divide between food manufacturers, which generally favor the expanded use of such technology, and many food safety and organic food groups that oppose it.

"Food irradiation is a pseudo-fix," said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety in Washington. "It's a way to try to come in and clean up problems that are created in the middle of the food production chain. I think it's clearly a disincentive to clean up the problems at the source."

Advocates contend that irradiation doesn't change the flavor of the food. They argue that irradiation adds an important final "kill step" to the food production chain.

"Hopefully there'll be some manufacturers that will take that step," said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who represents food contamination victims. "Hopefully the public will be less concerned about it. All the evidence suggests that there's not a risk."

Opponents argue that irradiation reduces vitamin levels and alters the makeup of foods. They also suggest irradiation will allow food manufacturers to cut corners on other required food safety measures, because irradiation might be perceived as a more effective food safety measure.

The FDA's latest irradiation decision on lettuce and spinach comes in response to the 2006 outbreak of E. coli from spinach grown in California. An FDA investigation found that the likely source of that contamination was the proximity of cattle operations to fields of produce, and the likelihood that cattle feces tainted the local water supply.

E. coli is a bacteria tolerated by cattle and found in their feces. It has been a big problem for the meat industry during the past year, triggering numerous recalls.

In humans, certain strains of E. coli can lead to kidney failure and death and are especially hazardous to children and the elderly.

Freese of the Center for Food Safety argues that the FDA's latest move is an attempt by the Bush administration to loosen as many food regulations as possible before leaving office.

"As far as the Bush administration goes, I think we're seeing a whole raft of attempts to push through regulatory changes like this," Freese said, "ones they're afraid they can't get passed under another president."

But Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association said the Bush administration isn't doing anything other administrations haven't tried.

"This is definitely bipartisan," Cummins said. "Every administration since FDR has been pro-agribusiness, and there hasn't been much difference in their policies."

Consumers worried about salad safety may soon be able to buy fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce zapped with just enough radiation to kill E. coli and a few other germs.

California-based produce giant Dole Food Company confirmed it is considering irradiated lettuce. "We are currently doing extensive testing with irradiation and it looks to be very promising," said spokesman William Goldfield.

A leading food safety expert said irradiation indeed can kill certain bacteria safely - but it doesn't kill viruses that also increasingly contaminate produce, and it isn't as effective as tightening steps to prevent contamination starting at the farm.

"It won't control all hazards on these products," cautioned Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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