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FDA Turns Over New Leaf on Irradiation

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It's only for spinach and iceberg lettuce — sorry, romaine — but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will allow the use of irradiation on those leafy foods in an attempt to kill potentially deadly pathogens like E. coli and salmonella.

In a letter dated Aug. 19, the FDA said in essence that it found irradiation of those two items safe.

The action follows a petition made eight years ago by the National Food Processors Association (now part of the Grocery Manufacturers Association) to allow irradiation on a variety of foodstuffs, a practice that had already gained a level of acceptance in Europe and that had been OK'd for fresh or frozen red meat and for spices in the U.S.

With bureaucracy speeding along at its traditional glacial pace, last year the grocers amended their petition to cover only spinach and iceberg lettuce, an amendment that followed devastating disease outbreaks linked to those vegetables.

The first issue of Miller-McCune magazine suggested irradiation as one path to safer food in the country in the wake of industry and government response to the E. coli outbreak of 2006, in which tainted spinach sickened more than 200 people and killed three. In April, we noted that new studies suggested that irradiation, could kill pathogens that are beyond the reach of conventional chemical sanitizers.

But, surprise! Shooting nuclear energy at food has its opponents, like Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch. When her book, Zapped! Irradiation and the Death of Food, came out in June, Hauter wrote in the preface, "While the public is being sold on irradiation as a solution to the growing crisis of foodborne illness, this technology is used to satisfy the food industry's ever-growing craving to cut costs and increase profits. However, irradiation does virtually nothing to actually improve food quality.

"Irradiating dirty meat doesn't make it clean. Whenever there's a food poisoning outbreak, we hear about irradiation. But irradiation is a bad idea for meat and completely impractical for vegetables such as lettuce, spinach or tomatoes."

Meanwhile, the FDA is continuing to process a request for irradiation on other foodstuffs, including "preprocessed meat and poultry; raw and pre-processed vegetables, fruits and other agricultural products of plant origin; certain multi-ingredient food products containing cooked or uncooked meat or poultry."