As has long been predicted, the FDA this week formally approved the irradiation of spinach and lettuce. The FDA approved irradiating meat almost a decade ago, and after the E. coli spinach outbreak in 2006, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) petitioned the FDA to let fresh produce be irradiated, too. Because washing greens and dousing them with chlorine at the plant doesn’t stop E. coli, irradiation was seized upon as the last-ditch, throw-up-your-hands solution. The GMA says that irradiated salad greens will initially only be sold to “high-risk” populations; a spokesman called it “one big step forward in improving the safety of fresh produce.”
But is it? The known: Irradiation is expensive, time-consuming, and may damage the texture of the greens (although the FDA says it won’t), not least because killing bacteria inside the greens requires twice the radiation as killing what’s on the surface. The unknown: We still don’t know everything about the effects of irradiation. And critics contend that the irradiation will cover up for lousy practices, which is why the announcement from the FDA’s chief of food additive safety insisted that “Farms and processors still must follow standard rules to keep the greens as clean as possible.” That that had to be said is, of course, not entirely reassuring.