Federal agencies move forward on irradiation efforts

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of irradiation on fresh iceberg lettuce and spinach to reduce levels of potentially dangerous microbial pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella. The F.D.A. previously allowed lettuce, spinach and some other produce to be irradiated to kill insects or to slow spoilage. But doses of irradiation used for those purposes are lower than what is required to kill most disease-causing bacteria. The F.D.A.’s final rule published in the Aug. 22 Federal Register approved the use of irradiation on fresh lettuce and fresh spinach at a maximum absorbed dose of 4 kGy (kilograys) for the control of food-borne pathogens.

The final rule was a partial response to a food additive petition filed in 2000 by the National Food Processors Association (now a part of the Grocery Manufacturers Association) on behalf of the Food Irradiation Coalition. That petition requested approval of irradiation to control food-borne pathogens and extend shelf life in a variety of foods up to a maximum dose of 4.5 kGy for non-frozen and non-dry products and up to 10 kGy for frozen or dry products. Products covered in the petition included pre-processed meat and poultry; both raw and pre-processed vegetables, fruits and other agricultural products of plant origin, and certain multi-ingredient food products containing cooked or uncooked meat or poultry.

In the wake of the E. coli outbreak in spinach in 2006 — which killed three and sickened nearly 200 — the G.M.A. in December 2007 requested expedited consideration of irradiating fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach up to a maximum dose of 4 kGy while the rest of the petition remained under review. The F.D.A. concluded the use of irradiation to treat iceberg lettuce and spinach at the proposed dosage to be safe and amended its regulations to allow it. The new rule took effect immediately.

Fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach that has been irradiated must bear the "radura" logo along with either the statement "treated with irradiation" or "treated by irradiation."

Dr. Laura Tarantino, the F.D.A.’s chief of food additive safety, said the new rule provides producers and processors "one more tool in the toolbox to make these commodities safer and protect public health."

"As the original sponsor of the petition to F.D.A. on this matter, we strongly support the agency’s decision," said Dr. Robert Brackett, G.M.A.’s chief science officer. "There is overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the safety of food irradiation. In addition to the F.D.A., the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association all agree that more than 50 years of research demonstrate that, at approved doses, low-dose food irradiation presents no health risk."

Randy Huffman, president of the American Meat Institute (A.M.I.), which also is a member of the Food Irradiation Coalition, said, "The meat industry is gratified that F.D.A. is making progress on the petition by announcing this approval of irradiation for this class of ready-to-eat foods — spinach and iceberg lettuce … We encourage F.D.A. to move forward now with evaluation of other ready-to-eat foods covered by the petition, including ready-to-eat meat and poultry products."

In a separate but related matter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced it will hold a public meeting on Sept. 18 to discuss a 2005 petition from the A.M.I. asking the F.S.I.S. to recognize the use of low-penetration, low-dose electron beam irradiation on the surface of chilled beef carcasses as a "processing aid."

The A.M.I. in its petition noted irradiation already was approved for beef products, refrigerated or frozen uncooked products that are meat, meat byproducts and certain meat food products.

"Hence, the question is whether this low-dose, low-penetrating application of electron beam to the outermost surface of the carcass needs to appear on the labels of meat derived from the carcasses," the A.M.I. said.

Processing aids are defined as substances that are added to a food for their technical or functional effect in its processing but are present in the finished food at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect in the food itself.

The A.M.I. asserted low-dose, low-penetration e-beam applications results in "an insignificant portion of the carcass receiving e-beam exposure and most of the edible portion of the carcass would not receive any e-beam exposure." That being the case, the A.M.I. held the use of the technology should not result in the requirement that all products derived from the carcass be labeled as having been irradiated.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 2, 2008, starting on Page 26. Click here to search that archive.

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