WASHINGTON – Food producers can now use radiation to kill bacteria on fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce because of a new Food and Drug Administration ruling meant to help head off outbreaks of foodborne illness.
This is the first time the agency has allowed produce to be irradiated as a health precaution. Tiny doses of radiation already are used to kill pests on some fruits and vegetables. But the process is most often used on meat – especially E. coli susceptible ground beef – and some spices. The food is exposed to just enough radiation to kill off most, though not necessarily all, harmful germs. For instance, the process won’t rid the produce of foodborne viruses.
“The ruling is basically giving processors, giving those who deal with providing fresh or minimally processed spinach or lettuce to consumers, an additional tool, another technology to reduce the level of microorganisms that are of concern,” said Laura Tarantino, director of the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety.
The decision, effective today, comes nine years after a coalition composed mostly of food industry groups first petitioned the FDA to expand the number of products that could be irradiated. The original petition had sought to make nearly all foods, from processed grains to seafood, approved for the process.
But in 2006, after an E. coli outbreak traced back to spinach left hundreds ill and three dead, the petitioners went back to the FDA asking the agency to look specifically at iceberg lettuce and spinach.
The FDA is still examining the other foods listed in the original petition.
Bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella can infect produce in a number of ways, including when animal waste makes its way into a farm’s water supply, when processing equipment becomes infected or when spread by poor sanitation. Tarantino said irradiation is not a silver bullet for the problem, and producers still need sound sanitation practices.
Some health safety organizations questioned the FDA’s decision, saying it would give producers a free pass to ignore basic issues.
“Having irradiation of foods provides a disincentive for animal factories and other food production facilities to clean up their act,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit consumer organization that monitors industrial agricultural practices.
The FDA concluded that irradiating spinach and iceberg lettuce had no toxic effects and did not significantly reduce the nutritional value of the vegetables. While some critics, such as Freese, are skeptical whether irradiation is safe for consumers, most believe the process isn’t harmful in the products for which it has been approved.
Food industry representatives praised Thursday’s move. “It’s a good initial first step for products that have been considered high risk,” said Robert Brackett, chief science officer at the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “This is meant as a safety net.”
Brackett said his organization was pushing the FDA to enforce better farm sanitation practices, but is hoping that it will add other products to the irradiation list, such as radicchio, romaine lettuce and other greens that are often eaten uncooked.