Let’s get one thing straight up front. Just because the government has ruled that spinach and lettuce can now be zapped with radiation to kill E. coli, salmonella and other nasty bugs, it doesn’t mean that the produce will be radioactive, warm to the touch or even pre-cooked.
The decision by the Food and Drug Administration has been long awaited since the Grocery Manufacturers Association petitioned the agency in 2000 to allow producers to irradiate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared foods.
The equipment is costly, but well worth it to producers because the process also can control insects and parasites, reduce spoilage, and extend shelf-life.
However, Thursday’s action by the federal food protectors limits the use of zoomies only to spinach and iceberg lettuce.
“I wish it could be used on all greens, all types of lettuce, and herbs like basil and parsley and cilantro,” said Dr. Christine Bruhn, a researcher from the University of California, Davis Center for Consumer Research.
Bruhn, who says she has been working on irradiation since the early 1980s, said FDA’s action is a “much needed and important safety step.”
Studies have repeatedly shown that the most careful and thorough washing of produce by the producer and the consumer will remove only 90 percent of anything harmful.
While that sounds quite effective, Bruhn reminded me that just 10 individual organisms of E. coli can put a person in the hospital, so removing 90 percent isn’t enough.
Working at its usual snail’s pace, FDA was still mulling over the grocers’ petition when, in 2007, a major E. coli outbreak was linked to California spinach. The outbreak killed three and sickened scores more.
Relatively small amounts of beef, poultry and other meats have been legally irradiated in this country for years, but it’s being sold in very few markets and is thought to have limited consumer appeal. Bruhn said research in her center shows public acceptance may now be there.
“About 10 percent of the public believes that irradiation is a wonderful idea and they want to buy it at their grocery store now. Another 10 percent wouldn’t touch it with a very long stick. They want the untreated, unprocessed produce as it comes from the field,” Bruhn told me this afternoon. “And about everyone else doesn’t have a strong opinion either way.”
At a Seattle conference on food safety earlier this year, irradiation was being hashed over on one of the breaks. One of the participants noted that so much radiation would be needed to kill the dangerous pathogens that it would leave the vegetables so limp that the final safety wash would have to be in Viagra.
Actually, researchers say that it will take different levels of radiation exposure to kill different pathogens. For example, E. coli can be killed with a relatively low dose while the much hardier salmonella would take a far larger jolt.
“There is a tradeoff between the strength of the radiation delivered and the percent of bacteria killed,” said Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist of the Organic Center, which issued a lengthy report on the issue in 2007.
“For the radiation to be a true kill step, which is a 99.99 percent reduction in pathogens, the literature shows there will be a significant loss in produce crispness and quality,” Benbrook told me this afternoon.
“There’s a lot of work yet to develop the most effective treatment that has the least adverse impact on quality.”
The radiation symbol � a magenta propeller on a yellow background � has for decades been an instant rallying point for activists no matter where it’s found. The international symbol for irradiated food – the Radura – is usually a green, broken circle with a stylized plant in its center. FDA has mandated its use since 1986. So far the Radura hasn’t engendered the visceral reaction to the more common purple propeller, but we’ll see what time brings.
There have been no indications in countless studies that irradiation presents any risk to those who eat food processed with the technique. If there is a risk, it would be to those who mishandle the highly radioactive isotopes which produce the gamma radiation used to irradiate the food and those around them. Let’s hope that the FDA has been talking to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about security issues accompanying the new process.
Nevertheless, some food safety activists weighed in quickly with their criticism of the FDA action.
“Instead of beefing up its capacity to inspect food facilities or test food for contamination, all the FDA has to offer consumers is an impractical, ineffective and very expensive gimmick like irradiation,” said Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch Executive Director, a national food safety group.
She called irradiation “a Band-aid, not a cure.”
“Allowing spinach and lettuce to be irradiated would simply mask unsafe production practices, while supplying lower quality, less nutritious and potentially hazardous food.”
“Treating lettuce or spinach with the equivalent of tens of millions of chest X-rays can ruin its flavor, odor, texture, color, and nutritional value,” she said in a statement.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 76 million Americans get sick and 5,000 die from foodborne hazards each year in the United States.