These are salad days for the Food and Drug Administration, which announced last Friday that it will let food producers irradiate fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce to kill e-coli and salmonella. The decision wasn't early or broad enough to avert this summer's food scare, but it's a step in the right direction for consumers and producers who want reasonable options to ensure the produce they're taking home is safe.
Under the new regime, the leafy greens can be zapped before they are sent to market to ensure they aren't carrying bacteria that have been the source of major food scares in recent years. The method can prevent repeats of many of the major U.S. E. coli outbreaks in the past two decades in foods ranging from spinach to onions to alfalfa sprouts and jalapenos.
If it sounds like good news, not everyone was celebrating at Naderite groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which sees irradiation as a threat to regulatory oversight on issues like farm cleanliness. In response to the FDA decision, CSPI insisted that irradiation was not a "silver bullet" and "may not be the futuristic cure-all the agency is looking for." They're the moderates. During the tomato scare, a group called Food and Water Watch warned that "irradiating vegetables is impractical and dangerous" and "only serves the food industry's ever-growing appetite to cut costs and increase profits."
This is the same crowd that presumably thinks you can hire enough inspectors to look at every tomato. In the reality of a global marketplace, contamination can be almost impossible to track. On-farm inspections and other regulations have nothing on a distribution network that offers multiple opportunities for contamination at every stop along the food chain, from washing, to packing, to salsa-making.
Irradiation has already been approved in many other consumer products, including dried spices and meats, as well as the recent addition of shipments of Indian mangoes and Hawaiian papaya. The process has long since garnered the blessings of groups like the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization for its ability to limit foodborne illnesses. At the FDA, irradiation of any given food must be proven safe before it can be approved -- the strictest standard available.
In the age of organic food chic, critics may not relent
easily, but consumers may soon relieve the suspense. The same arguments and
hyperventilation once greeted the introduction of pasteurization for dairy
products, now the rule in every American grocery store. Over the past 50
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