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FDA Allows Food Irradiation of Spinach and Iceberg Lettuce to Kill E. coli and Salmonella

Aug. 21, 2008 -- Starting tomorrow, spinach and iceberg lettuce can be treated with enough radiation to kill bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, which can cause food poisoning.

The FDA issued that food-irradiation rule today in the wake of recent salmonella and E. coli outbreaks, such as the 2006 E. coli outbreak that pulled fresh spinach off store shelves.

The rule -- which only applies to spinach and iceberg lettuce -- doesn't require irradiation. It just permits it.

Irradiating spinach and iceberg lettuce is safe and won't affect overall dietary nutrition, according to the FDA, which notes that although irradiating spinach curbs vitamin A and folate levels, that doesn't hurt total dietary intake of those nutrients. Irradiation doesn't make food radioactive, according to background information from the CDC.

Industry 'Pleased'

The National Food Processors Association (now the Grocery Manufacturers Association) asked the FDA in 2000 to revise its irradiation levels for a variety of products.

"We're very pleased to see one more tool that we can use to have what's a nutritious, good product become even safer," Robert Brackett, senior vice president and chief science and regulatory affairs officer, tells WebMD.

Food irradiation isn't new. The FDA has allowed fruits and vegetables to be irradiated at a lower level since 1986. But that level targeted insects and mold; the new level can destroy pathogenic bacteria in or on spinach or iceberg lettuce, notes Brackett.

Bagged spinach and iceberg lettuce are the new rule's "most promising" applications, says Brackett, to cut the chance of contamination later on.

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