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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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soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. A. Riley

    Research what will happen to the Phytonutrients in the vegetables that are irradiated. The Phytonutrients which aid in stopping many cancers will be absent from the food, they will have DIED during the treatment. It will be interesting to see how the FDA explains the explosion of many types of cancer in the next ten years.

    August 22, 2008 at 15:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Dennis

    How long would you have to microwave spinach to be sure it is safe?

    August 22, 2008 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. grace

    How about vinegar? Can E. coli live in a vinaigrette dressing?

    August 23, 2008 at 05:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Gloria

    Does the FDA have an online list of all recalled food items for public review? I was at the local Walmart this morning, Sunday August 24, 2008 attempting to purchase a 5lb bag of Jim Dandy Quick Grits. At the register I was told this particular brand and package of grit had been recalled and could not be sold. The sale was denided when the cashier inputted the sale into the register. I asked the cashier what was the recall for she said she did not know but did know that the 5lb bag of Jim Dandy Quick Grits was not to be sold. I left the store (located in Thomasville Ga.) When I arrived at back home, I immediately tried to find out about the recall on line but found nothing. So i call the Walmart again ask for the grocery dept and spoke with a manager in that dept. She confirmed that the 5lb bag of Jim Dandy quick grits had been recall for the packaging and not because of any contamination of the grits themselves. I thought it very odd that within two hours (my store visit and calling back to the store) that the recall had been cancelled. The grocery manager had no information as to why the recall had been cancelled. Note: I spoke with my sister about the situation and she told me that about a month ago at the family reunion, the same brand and packaging of grits had been purchased for the event but when the bags (both of them) wereopened there was mold on the top and had to be thrown out. She thought nothing of it until I told her my story from this morning. Do you have any information about this product recall?

    August 24, 2008 at 15:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Holly

    Actually, I'm more worried about the radiation. This is a huge problem.

    August 24, 2008 at 23:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. A. Riley

    If you know the food has been Irradiated, do not eat it.

    August 25, 2008 at 09:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Tom

    I would purchase meat and veggies irradiated over non-irradiated without hesitation. I'm curious why have such an adversion to this. There is no risk with respect to radioactive contamination. Those afraid of that should make an attempt to understand the technology before juming to conclusions.
    Enforcement and improvement of food standards needs to be maintained, but this seems like a no brainer for helping to reduce the risk.
    I'm interested in seeing some reference to the research behind the destruction of "phytonutrients". Nutrients cannot DIE, they are chemical compunds. I've never heard of Vitamin A, B...Riboflavin, etc. dieing.
    My kooky mother-in-law won't use the microwave because she thinks it alters the chemical composition of the food.
    1- It heats the food by exciting the water molecules (tuned to the rotational frequeny of water).
    2- Cooking food period can alter aspects of differemt foods chemical composition (simple food science).

    August 25, 2008 at 12:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Fletch

    Of course, the FDA says the irradiated food isn't altered by the radiation. This statement is an insult to the intelligence of anyone with a pulse. Why? Because if the radiation doesn't alter anything, then how can it kill e.coli and salmonella?

    The whole point of the radiation is to kill living organisms. And it works by causing fatal damage to the tissues and DNA of those microorganisms. So guess what it does to the plants? Since radiation isn't selective, it also irradiates the plant fibers and tissues, causing DNA damage and the destruction of enzymes and phytochemicals.

    Amazingly, the FDA claims this does not count as "altering" the food because these changes aren't visible.

    If it weren't such a nutritional atrocity, it would be downright hilarious. DNA changes are not visible to the human eye, but they can result in serious health consequences. Just ask anyone born with two Y chromosomes.

    Eat up, guinea pigs!
    Of course, the radiation pushers will claim that nobody really knows whether irradiating the food kills just 1% of the phytochemicals or 99% (or something in between). And they don't know what the long-term effect is on human health, either. This is exactly my point: The irradiation of fresh produce is a dangerous experiment, and we've all been involuntarily recruited as guinea pigs.

    I will be curious to see a serious scientific inquiry into the nutritional damage caused to fresh produce by irradiation. I also find it simply astonishing that this decision by the FDA has been made in the absence of such scientific studies. Much like it does with the pharmaceutical industry, the FDA prefers to poison the people first, and then figure out later just how much damage might have been caused.

    I say when you're dealing with the food supply, you should err on the side of caution. We are talking about the health of the nation here. This is not a small matter. It should be treated with extreme caution, skepticism and scientific scrutiny. Instead, it is being addressed with a gung-ho attitude framed in mind games and enforced ignorance.

    In other words, rather than figuring out whether food irradiation is actually safe, the FDA would rather simply pretend it is.

    Welcome to Make Believe Land, where all your food is now safe and nutritious, courtesy of the FDA!

    August 25, 2008 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Judith

    You use both words: "radiation" and "irradiation" in your article. Do they mean the same thing? If different, could you explain the difference?
    The process sounds safe, according to the FDA, and I would prefer to eat processed spinach than spinach which might contain e-coli or salmonella.

    August 25, 2008 at 14:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Kraig Rasool

    The FDA's ruling and policies really are sooo outdated....Its like they
    are still watching black and white television on a 25 inch console.
    Their decision lacks quality and concern....I really believe that they
    take into effect when they make a ruling on food safety they probably say to themselves.... "Well we might lose a few, but in the long run..."
    And if the public would standup a little more and protest decisions that
    they make we as a whole would have more say on what foods we eat
    and the amount of anything added to make them more appealing and
    healthier.

    August 26, 2008 at 14:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. pat

    Just because the FDA says it is okay – that is supposed to make us feel better – like we trust the FDA!

    August 27, 2008 at 16:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Laine

    I have some experience with radiation and I wouldnt recommend it for food sterilization. I eat fresh produce daily and have never had a problem. This is with the current food inspection methods in place. In my opinion, as long as consumers are purchasing quality produce and washing it properly then they should avoid any problems. Sure, we see bacterial outbreaks from time to time but perhaps those affected were pre-disposed to some other illness and had lowered immune systems. 200 people affected in 2006 out of 300 million total population is not significant and therefore doesnt warrant a change in produce screening methods. Especially not irradiation.

    August 27, 2008 at 21:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Jo

    Fletch's response was spot-on! Irradiation alters the food! Follow the money trail and see who benefits from irradiation and check out the revolving door between the FDA and corporations. I have absolutely no respect for the FDA as it is an organization that is rife with conflict of interest and sham science. Attempts to irradiate food have fallen several times. Why is it that media outlets suddenly show all sorts of food contamination stories and then tell us that our super-hero remedy has arrived...irradiation? Money is in the equation. I just shake my head in dismay when I see how easily people give up their thinking caps when a fear story floats around. Do some independent research on stevia and FDA rulings, for example, and then decide if you trust the FDA has your best interests at heart.

    August 29, 2008 at 00:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Lee, Yorktown Virginia

    It is not possible to have "radiation on top of your salad." It is possible to have radioactive contamination on your salad. My concern would be the containment of the radionuclides used to irradiate the food. If the food industry is not able to maintain clean food production, why would we expect them to be able to maintain uncompromised radionuclide containment in their irradiation equipment.

    August 29, 2008 at 09:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Hampton Howell, Ph.D.

    I hear very intelligent concerns on both sides of this argument–but let's move from impassioned belief to sober accurate science.
    Where's our science when we need it?
    1. What ARE the most effective non-irradiation cleansers, between vinegar, Clorox, and hydrogen peroxide, and other candidates?
    2. Can't we measure phytonutrient destruction after irradiation and microwaving? If not now, why not next week or next month???

    September 1, 2008 at 13:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Carter Ward

    A few workers in our area got Salmonella poisoning. It is a good thing that they did not die and they have fully recovered. |

    April 29, 2010 at 02:42 | Report abuse | Reply

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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.