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e coli, Escherichia coli, e coli strains
Paul Sakuma/AP

FDA Permits Irradiation of Spinach and Lettuce

August 22, 2008 02:40 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
To eliminate the threat of E-coli and other bacteria on spinach and lettuce, the FDA will allow them to be irradiated.

Safer Salads

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As of August 22, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized food producers to irradiate spinach and iceberg lettuce to kill dangerous germs like E-coli and salmonella.

The rule has been a long time coming. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) asked the FDA to change its irradiation levels for certain products in 2000. “We’re very pleased to see one more tool that we can use to have what’s a nutritious, good product become even safer,” Robert Brackett, senior vice president and chief science and regulatory affairs officer for the GMA, said.

Although irradiation can help make foods safer to eat, experts cautioned that the process isn’t a cure-all for contamination problems. Producers won’t be excused from having to follow safe food handling and processing procedures, and consumers should still wash their produce before eating.

According to the FDA, radiation will not compromise the safety of the greens, and actually increases their shelf life. Irradiated foods will be labeled as such.

The FDA has allowed foods to be irradiated for decades. Some fruits and vegetables have undergone irradiation since 1986, and meats and spices are exposed to radiation as well.

Whether consumers will want to eat lettuce and spinach exposed to radiation remains to be seen. “It will be a business decision, basically, to see if customers are willing to purchase this or not,” stated Brackett. “I see this probably starting off small to see how consumers will react to it and then perhaps grow to some point.”

Background: Food bacteria outbreaks

During 2006, an E-coli outbreak in spinach sickened 204 people and killed 3. An outbreak in lettuce that same year made 71 people sick. According to Carl Zimmer of Slate, the 2006 outbreaks were particularly difficult because they sent three to four times more people to the hospital than expected.

A salmonella outbreak in the United States has frequently made headlines in recent months. More than 1,400 people have become ill from a rare salmonella strain connected to contaminated Mexican chilies. The FDA originally cited tomatoes as the source of the salmonella outbreak, based on interviews with infected consumers.

Related Topic: ‘E-coli sensors’

Reference: E-coli, salmonella

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