Germ-free greens: Foodborne illness outbreaks put irradiated veggies in the spotlight

September 4, 2008 - 12:40AM

Melissa McEver


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In the future, a quick zap of radiation could render fruits and vegetables free of the bacteria most likely to make you sick.

On the heels of a multi-state outbreak of sickness related to jalapeņo and serrano peppers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now allowing growers or importers to irradiate fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce. The government already allows irradiation of beef, poultry, eggs and spices, but has never permitted produce to undergo irradiation at levels high enough to kill bacteria.

With irradiation, food is exposed to a short blast of high-frequency radiation, killing bacteria or insects but leaving no dangerous residue behind, according to experts.

Eventually, this process could become more popular among Rio Grande Valley growers, although it's unlikely to catch on right away, growers said.

"Other areas might be trailblazers because they're larger players who can afford the cost (of irradiation)," said Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, a Mission-based association of citrus growers and sellers.



The word "irradiation" might sound ominous, but the treatment is largely safe, said Guy Hallman, research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center in Weslaco.

"It's a very good process," Hallman said. "It's as safe as cooking food, and this way you're not fumigating or adding chemicals."

Researchers have studied the safety of irradiating foods for decades and have found no evidence that it produces unsafe chemicals or significantly hurts nutritional content, he said.

Some food-safety advocates have said these studies have focused more on potatoes and onions, and that little research exists on the safety of eating irradiated spinach, lettuce and leafy vegetables.

Irradiation also can harm flavor, according to some studies, but reports are mixed.

It all depends on the levels of radiation used and on the type of produce, Hallman said. The trick is to find a dose that kills bacteria and pests without hurting taste and nutrients, and that varies by fruit or vegetable, he said.

Consumers have shown some reluctance to buy irradiated foods, which must be labeled as irradiated, experts say.

But with the recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, that could change, Hallman said.

"We keep seeing problems of massive food poisoning, and irradiation would solve a lot of those problems," he said.



Rio Grande Valley produce importers and growers - recently in the national spotlight after salmonella bacteria were found on peppers here - say they might consider irradiation, but they have reservations about it.

"Certainly we'll look at it as an option," said Lawrence Kroman, owner of McAllen-based I. Kunik Co., which imports produce from Mexico for wholesalers and grocery stores.

Kroman questions, however, whether consumers would embrace the idea of buying irradiated fruits and vegetables.

"It's not supposed to change taste or consistency, but I wonder if they would accept it," he said.

Kroman said the company might consider using an irradiation facility being built in Matehuala, a small city in north central Mexico, to irradiate some produce before importing it to the United States. The facility is slated for completion next year, said Arved Deecke, general manager of Benebion, the company building the plant.

Cost would be a big deterrent for local growers, at least for now, said Prewett of Texas Citrus Mutual. Few growers and importers here carry spinach or lettuce, so the cost would only make sense if the FDA approved additional types of produce, he said.

"If the rule was broadened to include other (fruits and vegetables), that might make the capital costs more affordable," Prewett said.



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