In another example of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prioritizing industry interests over consumer safety, the agency announced last week that it will allow fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce to be treated with ionizing radiation. This just illustrates once again how misplaced this agency‚ priorities really are, and how easily they cave in to industry pressure.
In fact since 2000, FDA has been working with industry representatives to fast track irradiation. The National Food Processor‚ Association (representing powerhouses such as Kraft Foods, Inc.) originally filed a petition to FDA to irradiate food ranging from sprouts and seeds, juices, frozen fruits and vegetables, to refrigerated ready-to-eat meat and poultry products (like deli and luncheon meats and hot dogs). But as soon as major E. coli outbreak was linked to California spinach in 2006, FDA asked the association to re-work their petition and separate the leafy greens from the rest of the food, in order to expedite the ruling.
Unfortunately FDA‚ ruling on irradiation holds no water when it comes to preventing foodborne illness. Instead, irradiation is an impractical, ineffective and very expensive technology. Very little testing has been conducted on the safety and wholesomeness of irradiated vegetables, and from the small amount of research that exists, we know treating lettuce or spinach with the equivalent of tens of millions of chest X-rays can ruin its flavor, odor, texture, color, and nutritional value.
And if youre thinking you can just avoid buying irradiated vegetables, think again. While FDA is saying that irradiated fresh produce will be labeled, the agency proposed a rule in 2007 that would destroy the current labeling requirements for irradiated food. FDA could eliminate those requirements before the Bush Administration leaves office, leaving consumers in the dark.
Rather than pursuing irradiation, FDA needs to focus on how to address the cause of the problem — contaminated water used to irrigate or process crops.
Allowing spinach and lettuce to be irradiated would simply mask unsafe production practices, while supplying lower quality, less nutritious and potentially hazardous food. Vegetable growers and processors should improve flawed sanitation practices and FDA should hire more inspectors to inspect vegetable-processing plants more thoroughly. American consumers expect more and deserve better than questionable treatments like irradiation imposed by a weak FDA.