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Spinach, Lettuce, and Irradiation

Disease Prevention

On August 22, 2008, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a final ruling that allows food producers to zap fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce with enough radiation to kill micro-organisms such as E. coli and Salmonella that can cause illness among consumers. Manufacturers are happy as can be, and in fact, pushed hard for the ruling since irradiation also retards spoilage and prolongs the shelf-life of the greens.

According to Dr. Laura Tarantino, director of the Office of Food Additive Safety at the F.D.A., “These irradiated foods are not less safe than others, and the doses are effective in reducing the level of disease-causing micro-organisms.”

Needless to say, this announcement has unleashed a firestorm of commentary on the internet – not to mention, more than a bit of hyperbole and hysteria. Most of it is unfounded. I’m not saying that irradiation is safe (it’s not), just that the FDA announcement represents only a minor incremental change in policy, not a sea change.
First of all, the ruling is limited. The only foods affected by the final rule are:

  • loose, fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach
  • bagged iceberg lettuce and spinach

This is not a huge change in FDA policy. It should be noted that many foods were already permitted to be irradiated. For example, the FDA approved the irradiation of red meat in 1997. Other examples of foods that may be irradiated include spices, poultry, and shellfish such as oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops. And here’s a big surprise for those people expressing outrage over the current ruling, the irradiation of lettuce and spinach has actually been allowed for some time now — to kill insects and to slow spoilage. (The doses used for these purposes are lower than what is required to kill most disease-causing bacteria.) What is different is that the new ruling represents the first time the FDA has allowed any produce to be irradiated at levels needed to protect against.

Also, this announcement does not represent secret irradiation as has been proposed on some websites. First, of all, at least for the moment, the irradiation is not mandatory – it’s optional. Manufacturers have a choice as to whether or not they want to irradiate their produce, and you have a choice as to whether or not you want to buy it. And how will you know whether or not your food has been irradiated? The FDA requires that foods that have been irradiated bear the “radura” logo (see the graphic at the top of the blog) along with the statement “Treated with radiation” or “Treated by irradiation.” (By the way, isn’t the radura logo just the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen – a bright green perky plant in a happy circle? It almost looks “organic!”)

(Note: processed foods do not require a notice. In other words, irradiated spinach requires a radura notice, but a spinach quiche made with irradiated spinach does not. Also note that the ruling was just published today, so it will take a bit before you will start seeing radura tagged lettuce and spinach appearing in your supermarket.)

The bottom line is that for now, you can still buy non-irradiated produce and know what you’re getting. But keep in mind that the FDA is considering a proposal to weaken or change this labeling requirement. In any case, the real question is not that the FDA is allowing the irradiation of produce. That’s been around for years, but has made little headway in the marketplace because consumers have resisted it. In the end, though, the real issue is safety. Is irradiated food safe or not? The FDA says it’s safe, whereas critics say it makes food less nutritious and potentially toxic. As it turns out the critics are correct. The FDA, to put it delicately, is bending the truth. For more information on food irradiation – to better understand the process and how it actually affects food – check out:

Oh yeah, and to top it all off, despite FDA claims to the contrary, irradiation does not eliminate the risk of food-borne illnesses – not by a longshot. Untouched are things like: mad cow disease, hepatitis, botulism, and the omnipresent Norwalk virus. Can you say whoops?

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