But whether any company will choose to do so remains to be seen, even though the process was first allowed in August 2008.
Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of Sacramento-based California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, said he has not heard of anyone considering irradiation as a food safety step for leafy greens.
The FDA said in late February it was denying requests for a hearing on the rule that was first published in 2008 that allowed the use of irradiation for control of foodborne pathogens and extension of shelf life in fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach. The consumer groups Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch sought to revoke or delay the rule, but the FDA said their objections don’t raise issues of fact and turned down the request.
After the E. coli spinach outbreak in 2006, there was a lot of discussion about irradiatomg leafy greens, said Jim Gorny, vice president of food safety and technology for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.
But there are reasons it’s not being used, he said.
The FDA’s irradiation rule applies only to lettuce and spinach, so treating a salad blend with carrots and red cabbage, for example, is not allowed.
“It is really problematic that you can’t use on mixed items,” Gorny said.
The second issue, he said, is consumer acceptance. All irradiated items must be labelled with a radura symbol.
That brings up a business issue, Gorny said. Some consumers oppose food irradiation.
“A lot of businesses don’t want to deal with tremendous pushback,” he said.
Gorny said studies since the 1950s have repeatedly shown that there is no health risk associated with irradiated food.
Food irradiation is not allowed for organic food under U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program rules, Gorny said.
Other hurdles include the capital and cost of the treatment, worker safety and packaging. Only approved packaging materials can be used for irradiated food, Gorny said.
Yet irradiation may have a future opportunity with leafy greens, Gorny said.
Quick-serve restaurant operators could elect to use irradiation for whole or shredded lettuce or spinach used on sandwiches, Gorny said.
Ron Eustice, an irradiation proponent and Arizona-based food safety and food quality consultant, said the FDA’s recent affirmation of the rule is good news.
“This decision will be further incentive for produce growers and distributors to use the technology to enhance their business and in some cases avoid the possibility that some of their customers might get ill from E. coli or salmonella,” Eustice said.
He said using irradiation for phytosanitary treatment of fresh produce has increase markedly in the past few years, from perhaps about 10 million pounds in 2009 to close to 40 million pounds now. An irradiation facility in Gulfport, Miss., is experiencing success in treating imported produce, he said.
Irradiation is now used to treat tropical fresh produce from various countries for pest disinfestation, he said. Consumers don’t hesitate to purchase irradiated items such as Mexican guava, Eustice said.
The cost of irradiation, at pennies per pound, is much less than the cost of defending the credibility and image of a company after a food safety incident, he said.