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.
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.
Expect to pay a bit more for irradiated spinach and iceberg lettuce.
Exactly how much more depends on how widely it's done, "but we're hearing on the order of three to five cents per pound, which is not all that much to guarantee safety," says Brackett.
You won't have to guess if your spinach or iceberg lettuce has been irradiated. The FDA already requires special labels for irradiated items.
Brackett predicts that produce companies would send their spinach and iceberg lettuce to an irradiation facility. Some irradiation facilities are already in place, but more will probably be needed "in order to meet demand," says Brackett.
How much demand there will be is the big question.
"It will be a business decision, basically, to see if customers are willing to purchase this or not," says Brackett. "I see this probably starting off small to see how consumers will react to it and then perhaps grow to some point."
More Than Irradiation
Irradiation isn't the whole solution to food safety, notes the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Irradiating spinach and iceberg lettuce "may not be the futuristic cure-all the [FDA] is looking for," Caroline Smith DeWaal, the CSPI's food safety director, says in a news release.
DeWaal points out that irradiation is done at the end of the food-production process. The CSPI calls for food safety to be beefed up, starting at the farm.
Brackett agrees. "We still think that good agricultural practices, good sanitation practices, good manufacturing practices, are all absolutely essential and actually should be mandated in addition to providing for this choice of irradiation," he says.