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Finally, irradiated leafy greens

Sept. 1, 2008

by Roz Kohls

It’s about time. The Food and Drug Administration finally is allowing food producers to zap lettuce and fresh spinach with just enough radiation to kill E. coli and other germs.

I don’t understand what the delay was about. I’m sure the educated folks at FDA know producers don’t expose food to radioactive materials like plutonium during irradiation, although there might be a few consumers who believe that. The radiation used in the process comes from light.

“Irradiated meat has been around for years, particularly ground beef that is a favorite hiding spot for E. coli. Spices also can be irradiated,” said Bea Chang in an Aug. 21 Associated Press report from KARE-11.

Most likely, the leaves of lettuce and fresh spinach in sealed plastic bags will flow on a conveyor belt under a beam of light. Not only does it kill germs, but even lengthens the greens’ shelf life without compromising the nutrients in raw spinach and lettuce, Chang said.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association petitioned the FDA for irradiation several years ago. The FDA is still considering whether to irradiate tomatoes and peppers, she said.

I don’t understand the delay on those, either.

Grocers asked the FDA to rule on leafy greens first, because in 2006, an E. coli outbreak on spinach killed three people and sickened almost 200 people, Chang said.

Raw spinach, which is especially nutritious, was contaminated by wild boars in the fields, she added.

What farmer would expect that?

This summer there was a salmonella outbreak that might have come from tomatoes or jalapeno peppers. Investigators still aren’t sure. Salmonella, however, takes more light energy to kill, although not as much as what’s needed for meat.

Radiation also won’t prevent recontamination later if the lettuce or spinach isn’t in a sealed plastic bag. If a food handler at a store or restaurant is sick, or has dirty hands, germs can still be spread to the public.

The only reason I can guess the FDA delayed approving irradiation is its fear food producers would become complacent about cleanliness.

“Planning on irradiation isn’t an excuse for dirty produce in the first place,” warned Dr. Laura Taratino, director of FDA’s office of food additive safety. Food producers still must follow standard agricultural and manufacturing processes. Consumers also must still wash fresh produce, Chang said.

Otherwise, if it were up to me, I’d irradiate not only lettuce and spinach, but all food.