FDA: Irradiating spinach, lettuce OK to kill
By LAURAN NEERGAARD, AP
Medical WriterThu Aug 21
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.
The Food and Drug
Administration on Friday will issue a regulation allowing spinach and
lettuce sellers to take that extra step, a long-awaited move amid
increasing outbreaks from raw produce.
It doesn't excuse dirty
produce, warned Dr. Laura Tarantino, FDA's chief of food additive
safety. Farms and processors still must follow standard rules to
keep the greens as clean as possible - and consumers, too, should
wash the leaves before eating.
"What this does is
give producers and processors one more tool in the toolbox to make
these commodities safer and protect public health," Tarantino
Irradiated meat has been
around for years, particularly ground beef that is a favorite hiding
spot for E. coli. Spices also can be
But the Grocery
Manufacturers Association had petitioned the FDA to allow irradiation
of fresh produce, too, starting with leafy greens that have sparked
numerous recent outbreaks, including E. coli in spinach
that in 2006 killed three people and sickened nearly 200.
The industry group
wouldn't name salad suppliers ready to start irradiating. But it
expects niche marketing to trickle out first - bags of spinach and
lettuce targeted to high-risk populations such as people with weak
immune systems "who right now may be afraid to eat uncooked
produce," said GMA's chief science officer Robert
"It's one big step
forward in improving the safety of fresh produce," he
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
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.
She questioned why the
FDA hasn't addressed her agency's 2006 call to require growers to
document such things as how they use manure and ensure the safety of
irrigation water. Irrigation is one suspect in this summer's
nationwide salmonella outbreak attributed first to tomatoes and then
to Mexican hot peppers.
"We are not opposed
to the use of irradiation," DeWaal said. But, "it's
expensive and it doesn't really address the problem at the
Won't zapping leafy
greens with X-rays or other means of radiation leave them limp? Not
with today's modern techniques and the right dose, the FDA
The FDA determined that
irradiation can kill E. coli, salmonella and listeria, as well
as lengthen shelf life, without compromising the safety, texture or
nutrient value of raw spinach lettuce - the first greens
E. coli actually is
fairly sensitive to radiation, while salmonella and listeria require
more energy. While irradiation doesn't sterilize, the FDA ruled that
food companies could use a dose proven to dramatically reduce levels
of those germs, a dose somewhat lower than meat
But consumers shouldn't
consider irradiation a panacea, either. While E. coli
and salmonella tend to affect more people and make bigger headlines,
consumer advocate DeWaal has found that norovirus contamination is a
leading cause of produce outbreaks.
The irradiation rule goes
into effect Friday. The FDA still is considering industry's
petition to allow irradiation of additional produce. The grocery
manufacturers group will push for other greens, such as Romaine
lettuce, to be next, so that producers could irradiate bags of salad
While irradiated foods
initially caused some consumer concern, FDA's Tarantino stressed that
the food itself harbors no radiation.
"There is no
residue, there's nothing left and certainly no radioactivity left,"
Food can be
irradiated with gamma rays, or with electrons from an accelerator.
The latter method, if the electrons are too energetic, can actually
create radioactivity in the food.
shown decades ago that food irradiation (FI) with gamma rays or hard
X-rays produces in the food a range of peroxides, epoxides, and free
radicals which do not occur naturally in food and should be deemed,
prima facie, poisonous. Although all microbes are killed in
the food, the chemical damage within some classes of food makes it
Unfortunately, the nuclear industry has for a half-century
assiduously & dishonestly promoted FI as a means of getting some
ostensible good from some of its intractable byproducts, notably
caesium-137 which is a main fission product. Also cobalt-60 has
been used as a gamma source for FI, produced in nuclear reactors (not
all as inevitable fission product - ordinary cobalt is
exposed to the high neutron flux in a reactor to transmute it into
decade ago some foreigners tried to slap a million curies of cobalt-60
into our then Prime Minister's electorate for FI (initially disguised
under PR cover of sterilising medical equipment, beehive parts
contaminated by Bacillus larvae, etc - but there
was little doubt they intended bulk FI). This caper was
stopped by a broadly-based national movement in the course of which we
learned much about FI.
benefits of FI would obviously appeal strongly to the US Army, and
sure enough the US Army was the main funder of the early research.
The UC Davis prof Sommer in charge of that big research programme
concluded that FI was "infeasible". Find out how much
FI the US Army uses today!
relevant to GM-food. The principle is the same: a novel process
to modify food should not be permitted until proper testing has shown
the modified food to be OK. Pusztai & Ewen, and Showa Denko
before them, have produced evidence that GMF can be very much *not*
OK; now this German lab has shown that FI is actually harmful; but in
neither case is there any surprise.