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Irradiation of produce approved

The FDA says spinach and lettuce may be treated to kill germs.

August 22, 2008|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Consumers worried about salad safety may soon be able to buy fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce zapped with just enough radiation to kill E. coli and other germs.

The Food and Drug Administration today will issue a regulation allowing spinach and lettuce sellers to take that extra step, a long-awaited move amid increasing illness outbreaks caused by raw produce.

It doesn't excuse dirty produce, warned Dr. Laura Tarantino, the FDA's chief of food additive safety. Farms and processors still must keep the greens as clean as possible, she said.

"What this does is give producers and processors one more tool in the toolbox to make these commodities safer," Tarantino said.

Irradiated meat has been around for years. Spices also can be irradiated.

The Grocery Manufacturers Assn. petitioned the FDA to allow irradiation of fresh produce, too, starting with leafy greens that have sparked numerous recent outbreaks, including E. coli in spinach in 2006 that killed three people and sickened nearly 200.

The industry group expects the first irradiated products to be targeted to high-risk populations such as people with weak immune systems.

A food safety expert said irradiation can kill bacteria -- but it doesn't kill viruses that may also contaminate produce, and it isn't as effective as tightening steps to prevent contamination 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 FDA determined that irradiation can kill E. coli, salmonella and listeria, as well as lengthen shelf life, without compromising the safety, texture or nutrient value of raw spinach and iceberg lettuce -- the first greens studied.

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