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August 22nd, 2008
10:39 AM ET

Zapping your greens

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Senior Medical Producer

There’s a controversial new weapon to help fight off food poisoning. Today, the FDA is putting into action a plan that allows iceberg lettuce and spinach to be zapped with radiation, to kill bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli. Personally, I think it's a great idea. Since 1995, there have been at least 22 outbreaks of E. coli poisoning, just linked to fresh-cut lettuce or spinach. When we investigated a 2006 outbreak that sickened more than 200 people and killed three of them, I learned that even a soak in a chlorine bath won’t wipe out E. coli. Irradiation is the only thing that comes close. That and cooking, which doesn’t help your salad. Watch more from Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Irradiation is already used to sterilize beef, spices and food packaging containers. But when I asked some friends if they'd eat irradiated food, they scrunched up their noses. No surprise to Cathleen Enright, the vice president of federal government affairs at the Western Growers Association, which represents about three-quarters of the spinach and lettuce growers in this country. I asked Enright when we might see irradiated salad in the grocery store, and she said it could be quite a while. "It's going to be a business decision, and that factors in consumer acceptance.” She herself thinks irradiation is fine, but says “[it] does make some people nervous.”

The FDA says it's safe, but consumer groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest say that's based on old research. They say the jury is still out, and that we’d do better to focus on having more government safety inspections, and testing produce before it goes out to stores.

Are you more worried about dangerous bacteria or radiation on top of your salad? Yum!

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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