Fresh greens go sci-fi, join irradiated foods team

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You deserve safe, healthy food. Help us label GMOs and get antibiotics out of food animals.

By Consumers Union on Monday, November 3rd, 2008


With the too-frequent appearance of Salmonella and E. coli in our food supply, the FDA says irradiating our greens will control disease-causing bacteria and extend their shelf-life without adversely affecting their safety. A 2004 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that “irradiation of high-risk foods after processing could greatly reduce the incidence of all bacterial foodborne disease and save hundreds of lives each year.”

While irradiation will knock down bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli to very low levels, typically it doesn’t kill all bacteria in an irradiated food product. If any bacteria survive, there is the danger that they could multiply again under the right conditions.

In addition, irradiation at the levels used on food doesn’t always kill the spores of certain bacteria such as C. botulinum, nor does it always adversely affect bacterial toxins, toxic proteins and some viruses. While this new technology may have great health implications, it can be used as a mask for good hygiene practices by cleaning up a process at the end of the line rather than at its root causes.

Raising thousands of animals with the use of industrial farming techniques generates staggering quantities of manure potentially contaminated with Shiga toxin—producing E. coli, far more than any farm can use as fertilizer. Huge lagoons of stored liquid manure are the consequence – as are periodic spills of raw manure into nearby streams. During heavy rains, runoff contamination of fields of commercially raised vegetables and orchards, as well as of rivers, lakes, and wells, results in produce-associated or waterborne outbreaks of E. coli infection (Maki, NEJM 11/09/2006).

As a “partial response” to a food irradiation lobby petition filed in 2000, the FDA added greens to its list of allowed irradiated foods, which already included fresh meat and poultry, wheat and wheat powder, white potatoes, many spices and dry vegetable seasonings, fresh shell eggs, and fresh produce. As a result of the final rule, you could start to see more irradiated products in your supermarket, but some processors could be slow to adopt irradiation practices, as the technology’s expensive and most of the irradiation facilities in existence are used for medical equipment, not food.

If you think all irradiated foods are clearly labeled, think again.

While the FDA requires the Radura symbol on packages where the entire product was irradiated, along with the statement “Treated with radiation” or “Treated by irradiation,” some products like spices rarely carry the label. Other labeling terms such as “pasteurized,” have higher regulating standards beyond those required for irradiation. For over a decade, the meat industry has lobbied to make it harder for you to know whether your meat was irradiated, including attempts to label the meat as “pasteurized,” which sounds a little nicer than “treated with radiation.” Most recently, the American Meat Institute called on the USDA to omit any labeling if the meat had been irradiated early in the processing stages.

Of course, irradiation is not the solution to food-borne illness, as it doesn’t eliminate the hazards of industrial agriculture which contaminate our food supply, nor does it eliminate the need for traceability and more truthful labeling. For these problems, we deserve more than a band-aid approach from the FDA.

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