Last month the Food and Drug Administration allowed food manufacturers to irradiate fresh lettuce and spinach to kill bacteria.  The decision resulted in some controversy and much press coverage.  (See link to LA Times article, below.)  The process involves shooting gamma rays through the produce in an amount enough to kill most bacteria but not enough to wilt the leaves or affect the taste.

Though food safety advocates have been recommending food irradiation for many years as a reliable way to decrease food-borne illness, the procedure has been persistently blocked by public fear and misunderstanding.

Few technologies are as distorted and maligned in the public imagination as radiation.  After all, if all you know about gamma rays is that they transformed scientist Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk, why would you possibly want them transforming your spinach?  (Don’t get me started about fears of cloning.)

The important thing to keep in mind is that irradiated food doesn’t give off radiation, just like you don’t become radioactive after a chest X ray.  Radiation goes through your chest, but no source of radiation ever enters your body, so you don’t emit radiation afterwards.  Similarly, irradiated lettuce is not itself a source of radiation.

So it was expected that the FDA’s announcement would lead to an outbreak of luddite hand-wringing.  An analyst for a political advocacy group (quoted in the article below) warned that “irradiation masks the unsanitary conditions of industrial agriculture.”  Well, sure, just as seatbelts mask the dangerous conditions of car accidents.  No one suggests that food irradiation should lead to more lax farming standards, just as seatbelts shouldn’t lull us into reckless driving.  The other criticism, typical of all new safety technologies, is that it’s not perfect.  That’s true.  The number of food-borne illness will decrease, but not to zero.

Safety derives from multiple redundant measures that each decreases our risk.  Food irradiation is a valuable and long-overdue common sense practice.

Learn more:

Los Angeles Times article:  Irradiating iceberg lettuce, spinach effective but not fail-safe; critics cite consequences