FDA approves new ‘food additive’ to lettuce and spinach – irradiation!

August 23, 2008

On August 22, 2008, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a final rule that allows the use of irradiation to fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach.

It is the first time the FDA has allowed any produce to be irradiated at levels needed to protect against illness.

The announcement is a partial response to a food additive petition that was filed by the National Food Processors Association (now Grocery Manufacturers’ Association or GMA) in 2000. That petition also covered the irradiation of pre-processed meat and poultry, raw and pre-processed vegetables and fruits, and other multi-ingredient products containing cooked or uncooked meat or poultry.  In 2007, GMA asked FDA for a partial response on the question of the irradiation of fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach.

Although this announcement only applies to fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach, other fresh produce, such as tomatoes or peppers, are included in the Grocery Manufacturers Association petition. The FDA says it is continuing to evaluate the use of irradiation in additional foods.

In the US, the Food Additives Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) of 1958 places food irradiation under the food additive regulations.  It is because of this act that the FDA regulates food irradiation as a food additive and not a food process.  Congress explicitly defined a source of radiation as a food additive when it stated that “Sources of radiation (including radioactive isotopes, particle accelerators, and X-ray machines) intended for use in processing food are included in the term ‘food additive’ as defined in this legislation.” 

Irradiation of iceberg lettuce and spinach will be voluntary on the part of food processors. If whole foods have been irradiated, FDA requires that the label bear the radura symbol (above) and the phrase “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation.”  Yet, if irradiated ingredients are added to foods that have not been irradiated, no special labeling is required on retail packages. 

Proponents of food irradiation say that it stops the spread of foodborne disease by reducing or eliminating the number of disease-causing bacteria and other harmful organisms. An added advantage is that food can be irradiated in its final packaging – fresh or frozen – which prevents the possibility of contamination in the distribution system, store or home prior to the package being opened.

In addition to reducing the number of disease-causing bacteria, irradiation can also help keep meat, poultry and seafood – as well as certain fruits and vegetables – fresh for longer by reducing the level of spoilage-causing microbes. For example, irradiated strawberries stay unspoiled for up to three weeks compared to three to five days for untreated berries.

Critics say that not only does radiation make food less nutritious and potentially toxic but that the process also does not eliminate the risks of food-borne illnesses. An analysis by the Centers for Science in the Public Interest found that most outbreaks of illnesses associated with salad are caused by viruses, which are not affected by the doses of radiation approved by the FDA. Read more about the negative aspects of irradiation here.

http://www.fda.gov/consumer/updates/irradiation082208.html, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/22/health/policy/22spinach.html?_r=1&oref=slogin, http://www.us-fs.com/pastissue/article.asp?art=270873&issue=213, http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/irraover.html

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