WASHINGTON — Federal food-safety regulators now will allow producers to irradiate spinach and iceberg lettuce to protect consumers from disease.
The Food and Drug Administration is set to give the green light today to a practice that officials have concluded is safe. The long-awaited decision comes in the wake of high-profile bacterial outbreaks involving tainted greens.
"FDA concludes that irradiation of iceberg lettuce and spinach conducted in accordance with good manufacturing practices will reduce or eliminate bacterial populations," the agency says.
"I hope we will see a reduction in the number of food-borne illnesses," Dr. Robert Brackett, chief scientist with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said Thursday. "It gives the industry another tool to increase food safety."
The FDA's decision is spelled out in a 25-page document that will be published today in the Federal Register and that emphasizes the safety of food irradiation. "There is no reason to suspect a toxicological hazard due to consumption of an irradiated food," the FDA says.
The decision adds leafy greens to the menu of foods that can be irradiated, including spices, dried vegetables and ground beef. In theory, the low doses of radiation will eradicate potentially devastating Escherichia coli bacteria as well as other nasties, including salmonella, shigella and listeria.
An estimated 70,000 U.S. residents fall ill annually because of the bacteria group commonly known as E. coli 0157, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting can prove particularly ruinous for young children and the elderly.
Two elderly women and a 2-year-old died and more than 200 people in 26 states fell ill after a late 2006 E. coli outbreak that was traced to packaged spinach grown on a central California farm. The California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Board subsequently was formed to oversee farm-safety standards.
The FDA, in its decision statement to be published today, agreed that irradiation "will not have an adverse effect" on the nutritional makeup of spinach and iceberg lettuce.
"We don't have much concern about the safety of irradiated foods," said Caroline Smith De-Waal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "but there are simpler steps that can be taken."
Smith DeWaal called irradiation a costly "end of the line technology" that should be accompanied by safer produce-handling measures at the farm level.