The Food and Drug Administration's approval late last month of pathogen-zapping irradiation technology for fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce has reignited a long simmering debate about how to improve the safety of food. The news comes as the latest food safety scare-the salmonella outbreak probably caused by hot peppers-winds down after infecting 1,442 people across 43 states and killing two of them. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths each year in the United States.
Given the less than spotless state of the nation's food supply, is bombarding a product with radiation to kill microorganisms such as E. coli and salmonella a good thing? Or should you avoid irradiated food, as some groups urge? U.S. News asked food safety experts some key questions to help you decide.
What is irradiation?
The process involves treating a food with a short burst of high energy radiation that damages the DNA of bacteria. Though the FDA has only just approved the technique for use with fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce, the technology is not new. In fact, the agency has conducted safety tests on the technology for more than 40 years, and its use on meat has been approved since 1997. Spinach and iceberg lettuce are the first types of produce approved for irradiation at levels intense enough to kill pathogens. (Lower doses have been approved for other purposes, such as controlling insect infestations and slowing ripening produce's maturation.)
Why do some food processors want to irradiate food?
Groups that represent food processors, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Meat Institute, want to irradiate certain products to kill problematic pathogens and to extend shelf life. Research shows that irradiation destroys 99.9 percent of common foodborne pathogens. However, advocacy groups such as Food & Water Watch and the Organic Consumers Association oppose the irradiation of food on the grounds that it doesn't address the root causes of outbreaks, such as unsanitary conditions at farms and food processing plants, and reduces the nutritional quality, taste, and texture of food.
Full Story: http://health.usnews.com/articles/health/living-well-usn/2008/09/05/the-basics-on-the-foodfight-over-irradiation.html