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To Fight Food Borne Illness, FDA Allows Irradiation of Spinach and Iceberg Lettuce

Aug 22, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

In the ongoing fight against the food borne illnesses that have been plaguing our country, effective today, spinach and iceberg lettuce can irradiated to kill certain such bacteria, including E. coli and Salmonella.  The FDA issued the food-irradiation rule earlier this week following a wave of Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks, such as the massive 2006 E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach.

The irradiation rule only applies to spinach and iceberg lettuce and doesn’t require irradiation, but permits it, meaning not all iceberg lettuce and spinach will necessarily be irradiated and other vegetables, such as the raw Mexican peppers still thought to be a Salmonella threat, are not included.  The FDA has long allowed fruits and vegetables to be irradiated at lower levels targeting insects and mold; the new level will destroy pathogenic bacteria in or on spinach, according to Robert Brackett, The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s senior vice president and chief science and regulatory affairs officer.  The Grocery Manufacturers Association was formerly known as the National Food Processors Association.

According to the FDA, irradiating these greens is safe and does not affect overall dietary nutrition; however, irradiating spinach does minimize vitamin A and folate levels, which apparently does not hurt total dietary intake of those nutrients.  Background information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that irradiation does not make food radioactive.

In 2000, the Grocery Manufacturers Association asked the FDA to revise its irradiation levels for a variety of products.  "We're very pleased to see one more tool that we can use to have what's a nutritious, good product become even safer," said Brackett.  Bagged spinach and iceberg lettuce are the new rule's "most promising" applications, says Brackett, to cut the chance of contamination later on.  Brackett predicts produce companies would send their spinach and iceberg lettuce to an irradiation facility.  Some such facilities exist, but more will be needed “to meet demand," says Brackett.

Irradiated greens will come at a price; how much remains to be seen and depends on demand.  “We're hearing on the order of three to five cents per pound, which is not all that much to guarantee safety," says Brackett.  Irradiated spinach and iceberg lettuce will have special labels as required by the FDA.  "It will be a business decision, basically, to see if customers are willing to purchase this or not," says Brackett. "I see this probably starting off small to see how consumers will react to it and then perhaps grow to some point."

According to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), irradiating spinach and iceberg lettuce "may not be the futuristic cure-all the [FDA] is looking for," Caroline Smith DeWaal, the CSPI's food safety director, said in a news release.  DeWaal notes that irradiation occurs at the end of the food-production process; the CSPI calls for food safety to be improved, beginning at the farm.  Brackett agrees. "We still think that good agricultural practices, good sanitation practices, good manufacturing practices, are all absolutely essential and actually should be mandated in addition to providing for this choice of irradiation," he says.


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