FDA Says Lettuce, Spinach Can Be Irradiated

The Food Drug Administration has rebuffed consumer groups, stating that lettuce and spinach may be irradiated to eliminate pathogens and extend shelf life. Consumer groups Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch sought to revoke or delay the rule, but the FDA said their objections don’t raise issues of fact and turned down the request.

But whether any company will choose to do so remains to be seen, even though the process was first allowed in August 2008.

Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of Sacramento-based California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, said he has not heard of anyone considering irradiation as a food safety step for leafy greens.

After the E. coli spinach outbreak in 2006, there was a lot of discussion about irradiating leafy greens, said Jim Gorny, vice president of food safety and technology for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

The FDA’s irradiation rule applies only to lettuce and spinach, so treating a salad blend with carrots and red cabbage, for example, is not allowed.

“It is really problematic that you can’t use on mixed items,” Gorny said.

The second issue, he said, is consumer acceptance. All irradiated items must be labelled with a radura symbol.

“A lot of businesses don’t want to deal with tremendous pushback,” he said.

Gorny said studies since the 1950s have repeatedly shown that there is no health risk associated with irradiated food, however, it is not allowed for organic food under U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program rules.

Other hurdles include the capital and cost of the treatment, worker safety and packaging. Only approved packaging materials can be used for irradiated food, Gorny said.

Ron Eustice, an irradiation proponent and Arizona-based food safety and food quality consultant, said the FDA’s recent affirmation of the rule is good news.

“This decision will be further incentive for produce growers and distributors to use the technology to enhance their business and in some cases avoid the possibility that some of their customers might get ill from E. coli or salmonella,” Eustice said.

He said using irradiation for phytosanitary treatment of fresh produce has increase markedly in the past few years, from perhaps about 10 million pounds in 2009 to close to 40 million pounds now. An irradiation facility in Gulfport, Miss., is experiencing success in treating imported produce, he said.

Irradiation is now used to treat tropical fresh produce from various countries for pest disinfestation, he said. Consumers don’t hesitate to purchase irradiated items such as Mexican guava, Eustice said. The cost of irradiation, at pennies per pound, is much less than the cost of defending the credibility and image of a company after a food safety incident, he said.

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