Following the recent tainted spinach controversy, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month ruled that food manufacturers can now irradiate fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce to kill bacteria associated with food-borne illnesses.
Huh? Exactly. Essentially food irradiation refers to a process whereby food is exposed briefly to a radiant energy source (usually in the form of a gamma ray or electron beam) that is thought to kill harmful bacteria, thereby reducing the risk of contracting a food-borne disease. The FDA also contends that blasting your food with radiation can reduce the bacteria responsible for spoilage, kill insects and parasites, and delay ripening in certain fruits and vegetables. In fact, while we’re on the topic, it should probably be noted that the concept of irradiating foods is far from new: In 1999, the FDA began reviewing irradiation  and has approved its use in meats, certain shell fish, produce, certain egg varieties, flour, spices and unpasteurized fruit juices. These foods, however, must bear an internationally recognizable stamp, known as a radura, to signal that the food has been irradiated.
Health experts – including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association – and many food manufacturers agree that the process is an effective method to reduce the transmission of food-borne diseases. They also note that the irradiation process – which the FDA likens to putting your food through an airport luggage scanner – does not make foods radioactive, change the chemical composition of food or have any harmful consequences.
Certainly, when the radiation dose is kept on the low side the plants composition remains relatively unchanged. However, even the FDA concedes that at certain levels, the process can result in a “small loss of nutrients” – on the scale of general cooking practices, canning or heat pasteurization. Critics, meanwhile, suggest that the FDA is grossly underestimating the effects of irradiation, suggesting that the process can also damage antioxidants, essential fatty acids, protein, vitamins and minerals. In fact, one study found  that irradiating spinach with 2.5 grays of radiation resulted in a 10% reduction in folate levels in spinach; under current FDA rules, spinach and lettuce is irradiated with up to 4 grays of radiation. In addition, some have suggested that irradiation can lead to the creation of chemicals known as furans and 2-alkylcyclobutanones (say that one three times quickly!), which can be toxic when consumed in high doses.
In addition, it should also be noted that the irradiation process does have some limitations. While it can significantly reduce the quantity of bacteria, its effectiveness depends on the amount – and type – of bacteria on the vegetable to begin with. For example, if the irradiation machine misses a couple hundred million E. coli bacteria, you’ll probably never notice a difference, but if it misses even a few of the bacteria linked to salmonella, you’ll be hugging the toilet in no time!
While the concept of irradiation certainly has its pros and pitfalls, is it merely a quick-fix for a far bigger problem with our agriculture and food manufacturing practices? According to a science policy analyst at the Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Center for Food Safety, for example, “food irradiation masks the unsanitary conditions of industrial agriculture.” Echoing these sentiments, other critics contend that more attention should be placed on food safety during the early stages of food processing. In fact, even the FDA notes in its information packet about irradiation food that the process “is not a substitute for comprehensive food safety programs throughout the food distribution system.”
The reality is that even though the irradiation process is generally safe and is unlikely to result in nutrient deficiencies for those following even a moderately healthful diet, there’s really no getting around the fact that those pathogens got there because of sloppy farm practices – and by sloppy, we mean those pathogens are there because your food has come into contact with animal poop.
With that in mind, there are a few steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting a food borne illness. For one, be mindful of the types of produce you purchase – if buying at a local farmers market, ask the seller how they grow and cultivate their produce. Another option? Do your homework on the back end to shore up your own immune system so that if a pathogen sneaks in under the radar, you’ll be able to weather the storm. Your best bet, however, is to stay well-informed about all things related to health and nutrition and use that knowledge as a compass to guide your own decisions.