The E. coli crisis currently sickening more than 3,800 and attributed to German-grown sprouts illustrates the need to keep produce safe, and the way to do this is through irradiation. So argues a recent opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal.


The article, “Europe’s Organic Food Scare,” is a sign that there’s new life to an old debate over the pros and cons of irradiation – which uses gamma rays or electron beams to kill harmful organisms in food.

Leading the anti-irradiation movement is the organic farming industry, whose advocates say the process changes the quality of food, killing beneficial nutrients and digestive enzymes along with the bacteria and insects it targets.

But irradiated food, the WSJ article points out, has long been deemed safe and wholesome by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has been studying the technique for the past 50 years.

“After studying the safety of irradiating fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach, FDA has determined that these greens, when irradiated under the conditions specified in the final rule, retain their nutrient value and are safe to eat,” says FDA’s website.

Companies avoid irradiating produce, the WSJ piece says, because they don’t want to scare away consumers who might be mistrustful of the idea of “radiating” what they eat, although no actual radioactive material is produced in the process.

The editorial accuses organic advocates of using scare tactics to heighten consumer mistrust of irradiation, citing an article from the Advocate Post, a law community newspaper, which described irradiated food as “mutated,” and “the cause for many forms of cancer and genetic modification,” claims research has proved to be unfounded.

The WSJ op-ed ends with a kicker: “This latest E. coli outbreak is painful real-life evidence that natural foods are not always better, nor safe for consumption.”

A week after this article was published, the organic industry answered with a rebuttal in which it stated, “All food, whether conventionally or organically produced, is susceptible to E. coli. The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledge there is no evidence to indicate that organic products are more likely to be contaminated by E. coli.”

“In congressional discussions on food safety legislation last year, traceability and other practices of organic production and processing were held as a gold standard for other agricultural sectors to emulate,” the response continues.

However, the recent, most deadly E. coli outbreak in recorded history has raised doubts about the purported safety of some organic growing methods.

“There is a misperception, I think with many people, that organic equals safer, and it’s just not. It’s dangerous, actually, because it creates a false sense of security,” said Dr. David Acheson, former associate commissioner of Food for FDA, in a phone interview with Food Safety News.

One danger of organic farming is the practice of using animal manure, which can be contaminated with harmful E. coli, to fertilize crops, a step that can be dangerous if manure is not properly composted and managed.

“Some would argue it’s less safe from a pathological, microorganism perspective,” says Acheson.

What about the fact that irradiation can change the composition of food?

“Irradiated beef can have the aroma of a wet dog, and irradiated cantaloupe can be mushy,” reads a page on the Organic Consumer Association‘s website.

Acheson agrees that too much irradiation can fry food — much like over-cooking.

“If you zap it with too much irradiation, you’ll have spinach soup,” he explains. But he adds that, used in moderation, irradiation can be an extremely effective preventative tool.

Another concern raised by irradiation skeptics is that the method will eventually be seen as a panacea for bacteria on food, and that companies will use it as an excuse to ease up on other food safety interventions.

This, Acheson says, would be a grave mistake. The amount of irradiation needed to completely eliminate all organisms on fruits and vegetables would also be the amount that ruins the food, he says. So because a lower dose must be used, other prevention measures must remain as strong as ever.

“We have to make sure that the preventative controls on the farm and in the processing, transport, packaging are not relaxed one iota,” he says. “Irradiation is adding one more level of safety to the product. That’s how it should be viewed. It’s not a catch-all,” he says.

Where Does Irradiation Stand Now?

In 1997, after extensive debate through the 80s and 90s over its potential dangers, FDA approved irradiation for use on meat and poultry. In 2008, following a number of outbreaks traced back to leafy greens, FDA cleared the technique for spinach and iceberg lettuce.

Whole irradiated products are required to carry the symbol of irradiation on packaging. Irradiated products mixed in with other ingredients are not labeled, as FDA says consumers understand that these foods have already been processed.

However, “it’s almost not used in the United States for produce,” says Acheson.

While the process is sometimes used to kill insects on fruits and vegetables, “It’s not being used hardly at all for humans,” he notes.

And according to the meat industry, only 5 percent of meat was being irradiated as of 2004.

Acheson says irradiation’s slow progress is mostly due to a lack of demand. Neither industry nor lawmakers have tried to promote the process, and consumers remain ill-informed and  skeptical.

And so irradiation continues to drag along, making baby steps toward public acceptance — gaining consideration again most often in the wake of major foodborne illness outbreaks, such as the Dole spinach E. coli epidemic of 2006 (which spurred calls for irradiation of fresh greens).

At the end of 1993, the year an E. coli outbreak from Jack in the Box hamburgers sickened hundreds and killed 4 children, an article in The Lancet medical journal stated, “‘Transradiation’ by … machine-produced gamma rays would be the ideal method but its application is impeded in many sectors because of the perceived (though not medically substantiated) chronic hazards entailed by regular ingestion of foods decontaminated in this way.”

Almost 20 years later (and over 50 years since irradiation was first put on trial as a possible production step), the technique remains under deliberation in most sectors, and still does not have FDA approval for use on all foods.

The German E. coli outbreak seems to have unearthed buried enthusiasm for the procedure. However, whether this will translate into any food safety changes in the United States remains to be seen.

“If we’d had 3,000 people sick and 800-something with HUS and 40 deaths, we’d be having hearings every day. And rules would be being written, and regulations would be tightened and all sorts of stuff would happen,” says Acheson, offering his prediction of the American response to what’s currently going on in Europe.

Instead, the prevailing attitude in the U.S., Acheson said, is “no, it’s not really our problem … it’s really someone else’s lesson learned. That’s sad. We’ll wait until we’ve got bodies mounting up and then we’ll take action.”