WASHINGTON — The government will allow food producers to zap fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce with enough radiation to kill micro-organisms like E. coli and salmonella that for decades have caused widespread illness among buyers.
It is the first time that the Food and Drug Administration has allowed any produce to be irradiated at levels needed to protect against illness.
The FDA is set to give the green light today to a practice that officials have concluded is safe. The long-awaited decision comes in the wake of high-profile bacterial outbreaks involving tainted greens.
Some food safety advocates condemned the government decision and asserted that irradiation can lower nutritional value, create unsafe chemicals and ruin taste.
"It's a total cop-out," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch. "They don't have the resources, the authority or the political will to really protect consumers from unsafe food."
Another leading food safety expert said irradiation can kill certain bacteria safely but doesn't kill viruses that also increasingly contaminate produce, and it isn't as effective as tightening steps to prevent contamination starting at the farm. "It won't control all hazards on these products," cautioned Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The government allows food processors to irradiate beef, eggs, poultry, oysters and spices, but the market for irradiated foods is tiny because the government also requires that these foods be labeled as irradiated, labels that scare away most consumers.