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.