Add fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce to the shortlist of foods that companies can zap with radiation to kill off many dangerous pathogens. With concerns about food-borne illnesses rising — tainted spinach and lettuce in 2006 sickened hundreds of people and killed several — the Food and Drug Administration has wisely approved the use of ionizing radiation to kill dangerous bacteria and extend the shelf lives of these vegetables.
Consumers often cringe at the very mention of radiation, but the technology is a safe way to eliminate the threat posed by E. coli, salmonella and listeria in the food supply. The F.D.A., the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association all attest to the safety of irradiated foods.
NASA has long fed irradiated meat to astronauts. The F.D.A. has already approved irradiation of meat, poultry, spices, oysters, clams and mussels with no noticeable adverse effect on the small minority of consumers willing to try the products.
Some consumer advocates contend that irradiation could lower the nutritional value of lettuce and spinach and create toxic chemicals within them. But the F.D.A., after a careful review, found little to worry about. The overwhelming majority of studies it reviewed showed no evidence of toxicity. Nor were nutritional values significantly affected. Although some vitamins could be reduced by irradiation, the small losses would have little or no impact on total dietary intake of the vitamins.
Irradiation of greens is still no magic bullet for protecting the country’s vulnerable food supplies. The approved doses will not be strong enough to kill the viruses responsible for many outbreaks of food poisoning. Many food producers may be hesitant to adopt the technology because of consumer resistance and added costs. This country still needs a comprehensive program to keep food products free of pathogens — from farms through the processing and distribution systems to consumers.