U.S. spinach and lettuce to be irradiated to stop outbreaks of foodborne bacteria

Following an increasing number of outbreaks of foodborne illnesses over the last few years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States is about to allow food producers to irradiate spinach and iceberg lettuce to kill foodborne bacteria.

The food industry has been plagued in the last year or so by repeated outbreaks of foodborne bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) and salmonella which have sickened many.

The new ruling by the FDA is an attempt to reduce the number of outbreaks of foodborne illnesses such as the E. coli outbreak of 2006 where fresh bagged spinach was removed from the shelves.

According to the FDA irradiating food is safe and does not adversely affect the nutritional value of food, however the agency does say levels of folate and vitamin A are affected.

Food irradiation technology is designed to reduce harmful bacteria in food - the irradiation penetrates the food matrix, killing microorganisms without a significant increase in temperature - it is also known as "cold" pasteurization.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the irradiation of food is safe and does not make it radioactive and "holds great potential for preventing many important foodborne diseases".

The CDC says there is overwhelming scientific evidence which shows it does not harm the nutritional value of food, nor does it make food unsafe to eat and the process is comparable to the pasteurization of milk.

The new FDA ruling will in no way force food producers to irradiate spinach and lettuce, but will rather allow them to do so and has apparently been welcomed by the food industry.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association which wants food producers to be allowed to irradiate a range of processed meats, prepared foods, and fruits and vegetables, has called the move "one of the single most significant food safety actions done for fresh produce in many years."

But consumer groups lack that enthusiasm with the group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) saying that food irradiation should not be mistaken for a "silver bullet".

The CSPI wants a system based on "common sense" with better regulation of water quality, worker sanitation, manure use and management- along with annual auditing by the FDA or a third party and is also demanding that food which is irradiated be labelled.

The CSPI says irradiated spinach and lettuce should carry a clear label showing the words "treated with irradiation", which allows consumers to make informed choices.

Critics are concerned that irradiation lowers nutritional value, can also create unsafe chemicals and destroy flavour.

The FDA disputes this and says there are no serious nutritional or safety changes with irradiated spinach and lettuce and they were no less safe than other irradiated foods.

According to the FDA food irradiation has been allowed in the industry since 1986 and is used at a lower level to kill insects and mold in vegetables and fruit.

The expectation is that the demand for irradiated food will remain small, as many believe the food is radioactive.

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