The Food and Drug Administration's approval late last month of pathogen-zapping irradiation technology for fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce has reignited a long simmering debate about how to improve the safety of food. The news comes as the latest food safety scare—the salmonella outbreak probably caused by hot peppers—winds down after infecting 1,442 people across 43 states and killing two of them. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths each year in the United States.
Given the less than spotless state of the nation's food supply, is bombarding a product with radiation to kill microorganisms such as E. coli and salmonella a good thing? Or should you avoid irradiated food, as some groups urge? U.S. News asked food safety experts some key questions to help you decide.
What is irradiation?
The process involves treating a food with a short burst of high energy radiation that damages the DNA of bacteria. Though the FDA has only just approved the technique for use with fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce, the technology is not new. In fact, the agency has conducted safety tests on the technology for more than 40 years, and its use on meat has been approved since 1997. Spinach and iceberg lettuce are the first types of produce approved for irradiation at levels intense enough to kill pathogens. (Lower doses have been approved for other purposes, such as controlling insect infestations and slowing ripening produce's maturation.)
Why do some food processors want to irradiate food?
Groups that represent food processors, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Meat Institute, want to irradiate certain products to kill problematic pathogens and to extend shelf life. Research shows that irradiation destroys 99.9 percent of common foodborne pathogens. However, advocacy groups such as Food & Water Watch and the Organic Consumers Association oppose the irradiation of food on the grounds that it doesn't address the root causes of outbreaks, such as unsanitary conditions at farms and food processing plants, and reduces the nutritional quality, taste, and texture of food.
Why has the Food and Drug Administration decided to approve the technology for use with spinach and lettuce now?
According to Christine Bruhn, a University of California expert on consumer attitudes about irradiated food, a highly publicized 2006 E. coli scare associated with spinach helped spur the approval. In 2000, a major food industry trade group petitioned the FDA to approve irradiation for a variety of foods, including lettuce and spinach. The approval process had been slowed, however, by the sheer number of products being considered. After the 2006 outbreak, spinach and lettuce were put on a fast track. Decisions on the other foods in the original petition, including pre-processed meat and poultry and pre-processed vegetables and fruits are still pending.
Does this decision mean I'll start seeing more irradiated products in the supermarket?
Possibly. However, consumers have been slow to accept irradiated foods in the past, and the same could be true in this case, experts say. Only a limited number of supermarkets—such as Wegmans, for example—so far carry irradiated meat. One company that has embraced irradiation is Omaha Steaks, a meat producer in Nebraska that irradiates all of its ground beef. For the moment, however, the vast majority of spinach and lettuce will not be irradiated because the technology remains relatively expensive, and the number of irradiation facilities is limited. Most of the irradiation facilities that do exist are used to irradiate medical equipment—not food.
How can I tell if a product has been irradiated?
The FDA requires that irradiated foods bear a distinctive, circular "radura" symbol and the statement: "Treated with radiation." There's a move afoot by industry groups to push for a change in the wording on the label to something that sounds more appealing, such as "cold" or "electronic" pasteurization, says Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group that opposes irradiation.
Is irradiated food safe?
A number of medical groups, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the American Dietetic Association consider irradiated food safe. Though the irradiation process does not leave any residue or radioactivity on food, a few isolated studies in animals have hinted at possible reproductive effects associated with irradiated foods. However, the FDA's assessment is that these studies are not valid and that the overwhelming majority show no evidence of toxicity. Critics consider irradiation a surface fix, arguing that the technology discourages farms and manufacturers from developing better farming techniques that would prevent contamination in the first place. They also argue that allowing irradiation may cause food processors to loosen standards of cleanliness in plants, increasing the risk of contamination.