The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a ruling that allows food producers to irradiate spinach and iceberg lettuce to kill foodborne bacteria like E. coli and salmonella that can cause people to become ill. The action is intended to reduce outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, of which there have been several in recent years, including the E. coli outbreak of 2006 where fresh bagged spinach was removed from the shelves.

The FDA said irradiation is safe and does not adversely affect the nutitional value of food, although the agency acknowledged in their announcement, as reported by WebMD, that irradiation of spinach does affect levels of folate and vitamin A.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that irradiation of food is safe and does not make it radioactive. Their position on food irradiation is that it “holds great potential for preventing many important foodborne diseases” and overwhelming scientific evidence shows it does not harm the nutritional value of food, nor does it make food unsafe to eat.

The CDC likens the process to the pasteurization of milk, that is it will be most effective when “coupled to careful sanitation programs” and consumers will only trust food producers if they make the food clean first and then irradiate it to make it safe.

The FDA ruling does not force food producers to irradiate spinach and lettuce, it just allows them to do so.

According to a report in the New York Times, the food industry has welcomed the move. Robert Brackett, the chief scientist at the Grocery Manufacturers Association told the Times:

“This is probably one of the single most significant food safety actions done for fresh produce in many years.”

The Association petitioned the FDA in 2000 to allow food producers to irradiate a range of processed meats, prepared foods, and fruits and vegetables.

But the reaction from consumer groups has not been so warm.

Non profit group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said that food irradiation should not be mistaken for a “silver bullet”. They favour an alternative method to control foodborne pathogens, as outlined in a petition they sent to the FDA in 2006. The CSPI would prefer a system based on “common sense” with better regulation of water quality, worker sanitation, manure use and management, and annual auditing by the FDA or a third party.

The CSPI said that the FDA should require that irradiated spinach and lettuce carry a clear label showing the words “treated with irradiation”. This is already required for other irradiation products, which the CSPI said allows consumers to make informed choices.

Other groups have said that irradiation lowers nutritional value and can create unsafe chemicals, as well as ruin taste. Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch called the FDA ruling “a total cop-out”. She told the New York Times that:

“They don’t have the resources, the authority or the political will to really protect consumers from unsafe food.”

But the director of the Office of Food Additive Safety at the FDA, Dr Laura Tarantino said they had not found any serious nutritional or safety changes with irradiated spinach and lettuce. She said they were no less safe than other irradiated foods.

Bracket told WebMD that food irradiation is not new and the FDA has allowed the industry to use it since 1986. For example vegetables and fruit are already irradiated at a lower level to kill insects and mold. This latest move will just make it possible to kill bacteria as well.

Consumers will probably have to pay more for irradiated spinach and lettuce. Brackett said it might be around three to five cents a pound, “which is not all that much to guarantee safety”, he added.

The market for irradiated food is very small, which some experts suggest could be because the labelling puts people off. They think the food is radioactive. The FDA may consider revising the labelling so it is less frightening. Such a move is likely to be opposed by groups like the CSPI.

Click here to learn more about food irradiation (CDC).

Sources: WebMD, CSPI, CDC, New York Times.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD