F.D.A. approves irradiating spinach, lettuce

by Keith Nunes
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WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration is allowing food producers to treat fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce with irradiation to kill E. coli and other pathogens starting today. Concerns have long lingered that treating leafy greens with irradiation may damage the product, but the F.D.A. determined that irradiation may kill pathogens and even lengthen the greens’ shelf life without compromising the safety or nutrient value of raw spinach and lettuce.

"What this does is give producers and processors one more tool in the toolbox to make these commodities safer and protect public health," said Dr. Laura Tarantino, director of the F.D.A.'s Office of Food Additive Safety.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association had petitioned the F.D.A. to expand use of irradiation to many more types of produce. In wake of the 2006 E. coli outbreak from spinach — which killed three people and sickened nearly 200 — plus a list of lettuce recalls, the industry group asked the F.D.A. to rule on the leafy greens first.

"This decision by F.D.A. is a very significant step forward in helping to improve the safety of fresh produce," said Dr. Robert Brackett, chief science officer for the G.M.A. "This technology is simply one more tool that industry will have at its disposal to provide consumers with safe food products."

The F.D.A. still is considering what other types of produce might be appropriate to irradiate. Tomatoes and peppers are often mentioned as possibilities. Both have been the focus of investigators trying to trace this summer's nationwide Salmonella outbreak.

E. coli is fairly sensitive to irradiation, but Salmonella may require more energy. While irradiation is not sterilization, the F.D.A. ruled food companies may use a dose proven to dramatically reduce the levels of E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria on raw spinach and lettuce. The most likely use would be on bagged greens.

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