Pasteurized salad?

If Slow Food Nation showcased produce at the peak of taste, texture and freshness, a new FDA proposal might just show us what things look like down at the other end of the spectrum.

The FDA recently announced that it will allow spinach and iceberg lettuce to be irradiated — treated with an x-ray-like processing method that kills bacteria such as that found in animal manure — before being sold to consumers. The ruling was issued in response to nationwide outbreaks of E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella in salad greens.

The rule will allow the treatment of spinach and iceberg lettuce in conventional produce, not require it, and it’s not clear how many leafy greens producers are on board with the plan. But opponents are launching a hard-hitting attack nonetheless. Though irradiation is not allowed under National Organic Standards, organic food advocates such as the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) are speaking out, as are consumer watchdog groups like the Cornucopia Institute. CI notes that “[according to] scientific literature… irradiation destroys valuable nutrients, weakens cellular structure, and leaves foods even more susceptible to spoilage. It may also, in some cases, create dangerous chemical byproducts.” OCA echoes these concerns, arguing that irradiation makes food more dangerous, not safer. Eating irradiated food may make “the body more susceptible to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, liver damage, muscular breakdown and other serious problems,” OCA suggests on its website.

Both organizations call for consumers to comment on the rule in the 30-day comment period that ends September 22.

Then there’s the question of feasibility: Who can afford to train a laser on their lettuce? In the heart of California’s leafy green industry, Capital Ag Press argues that growers are unlikely to adopt irradiation techniques due to on-farm logistics. Joe Pezzini, chair of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement advisory board, is “a bit uncertain how you’d apply this to the farm setting, where most lettuce is packed.” I’m guessing there are at least a few corporations out there who are working hard to put his uncertainty to rest.

The biggest roadblock may well be consumer response. As any good linguist can tell you, it is hard to say the word “irradiation” without also saying the word “radiation.” Currently, irradiated products are required to carry a special logo (see above) and a statement disclosing that the food has been treated by irradiation. Although irradiated foods are not themselves radioactive, “radiation” is not a word consumers want associated with a family dinner.

The food industry does have a plan to take care of the skepticism, however. Last year, the FDA proposed a rule that would allow irradiated food to enter the marketplace without the pesky “I” word, as long as the irradiation caused no “material change” in the food. Should the proposal rear its ugly head once again, we may see salad marked “pasteurized,” a far more acceptable label to American consumers. Expect a big battle to take place over this rule and, in the meantime, join consumer advocates by leaving a comment for the FDA.

8 Responsesto “Pasteurized salad?”

  1. I am a little happier knowing that this isn’t poised and ready to go, and that I won’t be seeing bags of irradiated spinach (complete with idyllic logo) in the very near future. Perhaps there is time to make this such an unappealing option that no food packager would consider it.
    To clarify, the logo above is just for greens that have been irradiated? Or for all irradiated products?

  2. Carrie says:

    It really bugs me when efforts are made to sugar coat e.g. “cold-pasteurized” vs. “irradiated.”  Also, I strongly dislike the overall approach of treating the problem at the back end.  Amanda, I perused the OCA’s “alternatives to food irradiation” and came away, well, confused.  If one were to write the FDA, what alternative should we be recommending for fruits and vegetables? 

  3. Elanor says:

    Buttonwillow, the logo is indeed for all irradiated food, not just for greens. If you buy it at the grocery store, it will carry the symbol and the words “treated with irradiation” (at least for now).

    Carrie, right on– I’m totally with you on the problem of treating food contamination on the back end. Is it really OK to have manure from mega-livestock operations on our food, as long as we zap it to kill the bad stuff?

    As for writing the FDA, I’d recommend that same message: Irradiating produce doesn’t address the root causes of food safety problems, and our money would be better spent making sure that pathogens from manure and other sources don’t get into our water or food supplies in the first place (e.g. by regulating the size and number of large livestock operations, passing and enforcing stronger environmental regulations, etc.). There’s more info on the absurdity of irradiating fruits and veggies here, though the info at the top is now out of date– irradiation will be able to be used legally on produce once the rule goes into effect.

  4. Hm, what about irradiated spices? I know that I have at least some in my spice drawer, but they don’t seem to have a logo. Are spices not in the broader “food” category?

  5. Elanor says:

    That’s a great question– my spices aren’t labeled either. I did some quick research and found that all irradiated foods, including spices, are required to be labeled. But here’s what the good folks at Sustainable Table had to add: “Some spices that have been irradiated are not marked with the radura symbol. To ensure your spices have not been treated with irradiation, buy organic spices or ask the companies that make your spices whether or not they irradiate their products. And tell those companies that you don’t want to buy irradiated products.”

    So is the spice industry just refusing to do it? The USDA refusing to enforce it on spices? Who knows.

  6. Amanda Rose says:

    There is increasing focus on on-farm measures to improve produce safety. It just makes sense to give that a go.
    My spices aren’t labeled either and they are not organic.

  7. Mocrowaving your food:  How does that compare to the concerns about irradiation.  I avoid it whenever possible because of quality issues, and NEVER us plastics.  Are microwaves any worse than the irradation for sterilization?

  8. Amanda Rose says:

    Good question, Sara. The concerns are similar in some ways: there is nutrient loss. I haven’t seen studies on nutrient loss in irradiation but I assume it’s lower than microwaving since microwaves cook the food. Microwaving doesn’t actually cause more loss than regular cooking (sometimes less, sometimes more). They are probably also similar in that the more radical among us believe the methods are leading to our doom and yet there isn’t a whole lot of food science to back up that concern. Though even without hard evidence, I do admit that I don’t use a microwave (we don’t even have one) and I don’t plan to eat irradiated food.