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Is it Safe to Nuke our Lettuce?

The verdict is still out - A controversy if brewing that reminds us of the arguments about genetically-modified foods: The Food and Drug Administration's new (Aug. 22nd) regulation that will allow irradiation pasteurization to be used on fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce to kill illness-causing bacteria.

Food safety expert Dennis Olson, who has researched food irradiation for more than a decade, is convinced that irradiation could have prevented some of the illnesses and three deaths that occurred during spinach and lettuce outbreaks in 2006.

Olson says, "If we treat all of the lettuce and spinach, then there's going to be a very rare instance of exposure to illness-causing microorganisms. What's sad is that the FDA, after a nearly nine-year review, selected only two products involved with the massive illnesses in 2006." The FDA is still considering what other types of produce might be safely irradiated, for example, other leafy vegetables, tomatoes and peppers.

The FDA has allowed irradiation of red meat to control pathogens since 1997; in poultry since 1990. The new FDA rule is that it is the first time the federal government has allowed produce to be irradiated at levels sufficient to kill E. coli, salmonella and listeria, which are all microorganisms that make people sick. The FDA has approved the use of irradiation to eliminate insects from wheat, potatoes, flour, spices, tea, fruits and vegetables since 1985, but it couldn't be used to treat vegetative pathogens until now.

Cost and consumer acceptance are two obstacles that still stand in the way of large amounts of leafy greens being treated with irradiation. Food safety expert Sam Beattie says, "I suspect it will take awhile for the supply chain to get into place because of the limited number of irradiation facilities in place in the US. These facilities are relatively expensive to build, so you have to make sure you have adequate product flow and a market for that product."

"It would have to be new construction, that's for sure, Olson says. "We wouldn't expect any immediate adoption, and in fact industry won't move forward unless they are sure there won't be a backlash from consumer activists. The other issue is that there is a lot more product now being labeled organic, and you cannot irradiate products labeled organic."

The concern that zapping greens might leave them limp or cause them to taste differently is no longer an issue. Oson says, "There's been a lot of research done on that, and basically, products that have treated with irradiation are as good or better after 14 days (typical travel time) than those that haven't."

However, not everyone agrees that irradiated foods are safe. Some studies have shown negative side effects of FRESHLY irradiated products when they are eaten by test animals. These range from weakened immune systems to weight loss. Interestingly enough, these negative side effects are much less if the irradiated food is store for 6 weeks before being eaten. The problem is, no leafy vegetable will still taste good 6 weeks after it's picked!

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