Friday, August 29, 2008

FDA to permit irradiation of spinach, lettuce

FDA to permit irradiation of spinach, lettuce
George Raine, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

Nearly two years after E. coli bacteria traced to California-grown spinach killed three people and sickened 205, the federal government says it will allow producers of fresh iceberg lettuce and spinach to use irradiation to control food-borne pathogens and extend shelf life.

The Food and Drug Administration is amending the food-additive regulations to provide what it calls the safe use of ionizing radiation for just the two leafy greens. The FDA also has received petitions seeking permission to use irradiation for other lettuces and many other foods.

The government is allowing the practice in the wake of the major E. coli outbreak in 2006 and numerous other problems with food safety and recalls. But this won't be first time such a technique has been used on food. Consumers have eaten irradiated meat for years.

Despite some consumer concern, the FDA says irradiation is safe.

"The agency has determined that this action is of a type that does not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment," reads the FDA's final rule, released Thursday and effective today.

'Expensive gimmick'

As expected, criticism of the FDA was swift.

Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer rights group that challenges what it calls corporate control and abuse of food and water resources, said that very little testing has been conducted on the safety and wholesomeness of irradiated vegetables. The group also said the action was off target.

"It is unbelievable that the FDA's first action on this issue is to turn to irradiation rather than focus on how to prevent contamination of these crops," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "Instead of beefing up its capacity to inspect food facilities or test food for contamination, all the FDA has to offer consumers is an impractical, ineffective and very expensive gimmick like irradiation."

On the industry side, there is little demand for irradiation from California growers and shippers of spinach and iceberg lettuce.

"I think that from a growers' perspective, we have to consider anything that helps us provide safety for consumers, but whether this takes off depends on consumers," said Cathy Enright, vice president for government affairs for Western Growers, which represents growers, packers and shippers of nearly half of the nation's fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts.

"In any marketing decision, we have to look at cost in adapting the technology and consumer acceptance," which will take time to develop, she said.

The petition for the voluntary use of ionizing radiation was filed in 2000 by the Grocery Manufacturers Association. At the time, said Robert Brackett, the group's chief scientist, the grocers wanted permission to use irradiation in the preparation of many foods. However, they amended the petition and asked the government to focus on iceberg lettuce and spinach after the 2006 E. coli outbreak.

The contamination was traced to spinach co-packaged by Dole and Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista (San Benito County). Spinach virtually vanished from grocery stores as demand plummeted.

"That was a big motivation for us," said Brackett, in Washington, D.C.

California producers of leafy greens, in the aftermath of the case of the contaminated spinach, formed a voluntary group called the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, which developed a food safety protocol for its members - nearly all of the major leafy green producers in California. The approved business practices range from accommodating fieldworker sanitation to preventing animal contamination of leafy green vegetables.

Staved off regulation

The marketing effort also kept the producers steps ahead of attempts at government regulation of the industry.

The marketing group, said its chief executive, Scott Horsfall, was surprised by the government rule announced Thursday, saying, "It's not something we have talked about in the year and a half we have had the marketing agreement in place."

He added, "I do not know anyone clamoring for it. There has to be consumer acceptance. We do not know how big a hurdle that might be. The science needs to be looked at and the cost, too."

Others feel it is a step in the right direction.

The grocers' association's Brackett said, "It's more of a safety net. No matter how good a job you do with preventative steps - good practices, proper sanitation - there is still a small chance for contamination. This takes care of those small chances."

Feral swine

The California spinach was contaminated by feral swine, an investigation later found. Most of the victims were from Wisconsin and Utah. William Marler, a Seattle lawyer representing victims of food-borne illness, is handling lawsuits for 103 families affected by the outbreak. All the suits except four have been resolved, he said Friday.

Marler said the ionizing radiation tool "gives potential consumers more choice." He said most of the E. coli problems in recent years have been with mass-produced, bagged product, "and those products are ripe for using some kill step like irradiation to make it safer."

Marler, along with the Grocery Manufacturing Association, advocates for national food safety oversight regulation and said this week's FDA rule may prompt more of a discussion about that.

"Everyone would have to play by that rule," said Marler.

E-mail George Raine at

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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