In an attempt to help head off outbreaks of foodborne illness, the FDA ruled last week that food producers can now use radiation to kill bacteria on fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce.
This is the first time the agency has allowed produce to be irradiated as a health precaution. Tiny doses of radiation already are used to kill pests on some fruits and vegetables. But the process is most often used on meat — especially E. coli susceptible ground beef — and some spices. The food is exposed to just enough radiation to kill off most, though not necessarily all, harmful germs. For instance, the process won’t rid the produce of foodborne viruses.
The ruling is basically giving processors, giving those who deal with providing fresh or minimally processed spinach or lettuce to consumers, an additional tool, another technology to reduce the level of microorganisms that are of concern,” said Laura Tarantino, director of the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety.
Some have criticized the move, claiming that the new rule gives producers a free pass to ignore basic issues.
“Having irradiation of foods provides a disincentive for animal factories and other food production facilities to clean up their act,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit consumer organization that monitors industrial agricultural practices.
Companies like Food Technology Service and Steris continue to develop technologies for the irradiation of foods and food proecessing equipment. What remains to be seen, is how far the FDA will allow these techologies to be applied in the industry setting.