August 22, 2008

Your Salad Soon Could Be Irradiated

By Julie Schmit

The Food and Drug Administration has approved use of irradiation on spinach and lettuce to kill dangerous bacteria, but companies may have a tough time selling the idea to consumers.

The FDA's decision, effective today, adds iceberg lettuce and spinach to the short but growing list of foods approved for irradiation, including meat, poultry and some shellfish.

While a handful of companies have succeeded in selling irradiated ground beef since it hit the market in 2000, the idea has largely flopped. "Mom wouldn't buy it," says Craig Wilson, food-safety chief for Costco.

Like pasteurization of milk and pressure cooking of canned foods, treating food with ionizing radiation can kill bacteria such as E. coli. NASA gives irradiated food to astronauts, and the technology, which kills bacteria by altering its DNA, was first used in the U.S. in 1964 to extend the shelf life of white potatoes.

Based on available data, the FDA said Thursday that irradiation done correctly and at approved levels would reduce or eliminate bacteria without altering the nutritional value of the greens or harming consumers.

Opponents say more testing is needed and that the FDA could better enhance food safety by policing foodmakers more. The consumer group Food & Water Watch called irradiation an "impractical, ineffective and very expensive gimmick" that may ruin flavor, texture and nutritional value.

The FDA's ruling resulted from a petition filed in 2000 by a food-manufacturing association asking the FDA to approve irradiation for a broad array of foods. In 2007, the petition was amended so that the leafy greens could be ruled on first.

The year before, bagged spinach was associated with an E. coli outbreak that killed five people, sickened more than 200, and pummeled bagged salad sales. The outbreak underscored the inherent risk of eating raw food that's grown outside, where animals can spread bacteria.

The steady pace of food-safety scares since then -- and growing consumer awareness of food-safety risks -- will improve consumer acceptance of irradiated greens, says Doug Powell of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University.

"There's been enough outbreaks ... that the consumer demand should be there," he says.

Processors of leafy greens have long considered irradiation promising, but they've struggled to find the right dose that kills bacteria while preserving freshness.

"Historically, the fragility of the (leafy greens) has been a quality issue," Dole spokesman Bill Goldfield says. Based on Dole's testing, "It looks to be very promising."

The FDA will require irradiated produce to be labeled. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>