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FDA Approves Irradiation of Fresh Spinach and Iceberg Lettuce

Posted by Chrissie Cole
Friday, August 22, 2008 6:51 PM EST
Category: Protecting Your Family
Tags: FDA & Prescription Drugs, E. Coli, Food-Borne Illness, Salmonella, Food Poisoning, Norovirus Disease, Irradiation, Iceberg Lettuce, Spinach


IMAGE SOURCE: © iStockPhoto / fresh iceberg lettuce / jmsilva

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved new regulations to allow the safe use of ionizing radiation for the control of food-borne bacteria's and other pathogens (such as E. coli and Salmonella).

The treatment will also extend shelf life in fresh spinach and fresh iceberg lettuce without adversely affecting food safety, texture or nutrient value of lettuce and raw spinach, the FDA said.

During irradiation, foods are exposed briefly to a radiant energy source such as gamma rays or electron beams within a shielded facility.

The new regulations will not excuse dirty produce, warns Dr. Laura Tarantino, FDA’s chief of food additive safety. Farmers and processors must still abide by rules to keep produce as clean as possible and consumers, too, by washing the greens prior to eating.

“This measure allows one more step to making these products safer while also helping to protect public health,” Tarantino said.

The technique is not new, in fact, it has been used for years, specifically for use in ground beef, commonly susceptible to E. coli.

Other foods already approved for radiation treatment include spices, poultry and shellfish (such as oysters and clams), according to the agency. The agency’s review of the other foods is still ongoing.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has petitioned the FDA for the inclusion of other fresh produce and foods – starting with leafy greens that have been the center of several recent outbreaks, including spinach contaminated with E. coli that killed three people and sickened nearly 200 in 2006.

This is a major step forward in improving the safety of fresh produce.

Lettuce and spinach that has been irradiated will need to carry a special “radura” logo that states the product has undergone “radiation treatment” or has been “treated by irradiation,” said the FDA.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates about 76 million cases of E. coli and other types of food poisoning occur each year. Patients sickened with food-borne illnesses experience a wide host of symptoms that include diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and nausea.

“Irradiation, while helpful, will not control all potential hazards associated with these foods,” cautions Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Consumers need to understand that irradiation is not a cure-all. While salmonella and E. coli tend to make headlines most often, consumer advocates have found that noroviruses (a group of viruses that cause the "stomach flu”) are a leading cause of outbreaks.

The irradiation rule will go into effect beginning Friday. The GMA will likely urge Romaine lettuce to be added next, so that producers can irradiate bags of salad mixes.

The FDA stresses that the foods themselves do not harbor any radiation. “There is no residue and most definitely no radioactivity left.” #

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