Nearly two years after E. coli bacteria
traced to California-grown spinach killed three people and sickened
205, the federal government says it will allow producers of fresh
iceberg lettuce and spinach to use irradiation to control food-borne
pathogens and extend shelf life.
The Food and Drug Administration is amending the food-additive
regulations to provide what it calls the safe use of ionizing radiation
for just the two leafy greens. The FDA also has received petitions
seeking permission to use irradiation for other lettuces and many other
The government is allowing the practice in the wake of the major E.
coli outbreak in 2006 and numerous other problems with food safety and
recalls. But this won't be first time such a technique has been used on
food. Consumers have eaten irradiated meat for years.
Despite some consumer concern, the FDA says irradiation is safe.
"The agency has determined that this action is of a type that does
not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human
environment," reads the FDA's final rule, released Thursday and
As expected, criticism of the FDA was swift.
Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer rights group that
challenges what it calls corporate control and abuse of food and water
resources, said that very little testing has been conducted on the
safety and wholesomeness of irradiated vegetables. The group also said
the action was off target.
"It is unbelievable that the FDA's first action on this issue is to
turn to irradiation rather than focus on how to prevent contamination
of these crops," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food &
Water Watch. "Instead of beefing up its capacity to inspect food
facilities or test food for contamination, all the FDA has to offer
consumers is an impractical, ineffective and very expensive gimmick
On the industry side, there is little demand for irradiation from
California growers and shippers of spinach and iceberg lettuce.
"I think that from a growers' perspective, we have to consider
anything that helps us provide safety for consumers, but whether this
takes off depends on consumers," said Cathy Enright, vice president for
government affairs for Western Growers, which represents growers,
packers and shippers of nearly half of the nation's fresh fruits,
vegetables and nuts.
"In any marketing decision, we have to look at cost in adapting the
technology and consumer acceptance," which will take time to develop,
The petition for the voluntary use of ionizing radiation was filed
in 2000 by the Grocery Manufacturers Association. At the time, said
Robert Brackett, the group's chief scientist, the grocers wanted
permission to use irradiation in the preparation of many foods.
However, they amended the petition and asked the government to focus on
iceberg lettuce and spinach after the 2006 E. coli outbreak.
The contamination was traced to spinach co-packaged by Dole and
Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista (San Benito County).
Spinach virtually vanished from grocery stores as demand plummeted.
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"That was a big motivation for us," said Brackett, in Washington, D.C.
California producers of leafy greens, in the aftermath of the case
of the contaminated spinach, formed a voluntary group called the Leafy
Green Marketing Agreement, which developed a food safety protocol for
its members - nearly all of the major leafy green producers in
California. The approved business practices range from accommodating
fieldworker sanitation to preventing animal contamination of leafy
Staved off regulation
The marketing effort also kept the producers steps ahead of attempts at government regulation of the industry.
The marketing group, said its chief executive, Scott Horsfall, was
surprised by the government rule announced Thursday, saying, "It's not
something we have talked about in the year and a half we have had the
marketing agreement in place."
He added, "I do not know anyone clamoring for it. There has to be
consumer acceptance. We do not know how big a hurdle that might be. The
science needs to be looked at and the cost, too."
Others feel it is a step in the right direction.
The grocers' association's Brackett said, "It's more of a safety
net. No matter how good a job you do with preventative steps - good
practices, proper sanitation - there is still a small chance for
contamination. This takes care of those small chances."
The California spinach was contaminated by feral swine, an
investigation later found. Most of the victims were from Wisconsin and
Utah. William Marler, a Seattle lawyer representing victims of
food-borne illness, is handling lawsuits for 103 families affected by
the outbreak. All the suits except four have been resolved, he said
Marler said the ionizing radiation tool "gives potential consumers
more choice." He said most of the E. coli problems in recent years have
been with mass-produced, bagged product, "and those products are ripe
for using some kill step like irradiation to make it safer."
Marler, along with the Grocery Manufacturing Association, advocates
for national food safety oversight regulation and said this week's FDA
rule may prompt more of a discussion about that.
"Everyone would have to play by that rule," said Marler.