Microwaving salad fixings with just a bit of radiation can kill dangerous E coli and other bacteria and US food safety experts say Europe’s massive outbreak shows wary consumers should give the long-approved step a chance.
The U.S. government has OK’d irradiation for a variety of foods meat, spices, certain imported fruits, the seeds used to grow sprouts. Even iceberg lettuce or spinach can be irradiated without the leaves going limp. And no, it does not make the food radioactive.
But sterilized leafy greens are not on the market, and overall sales of irradiated foods remain low. A disappointed U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association says one reason is that sellers worry about consumer mistrust.
“We need to do whatever we can to give us a wider margin of safety,” says Dr Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota infectious disease specialist who frequently advises the government. “Food irradiation for a number of produce items would give us not just a marginal increase, but give us probably the Grand Canyon increase of safety.”
The source of the E coli strain in Europe has not been pinpointed. Health authorities have warned consumers there not to eat any type of sprout, the newest suspect, but also say to avoid tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce until the mystery is solved.
The US has faced its own spate of tainted produce in recent years, with E coli, salmonella, listeria and other bugs linked to lettuce, spinach, hot peppers, sprouts, cantaloupes and more.
The outbreaks have renewed interest in higher-tech fixes like irradiation, used in certain foods in the U.S. and parts of Europe. Irradiation zaps food with electron beams, like the kind long used to run TVs, or with gamma rays or X-rays. It’s the same way numerous medical products are sterilized.
The Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation for raw spinach and lettuce three years ago, saying it safely killed germs and lengthened shelf life without harming texture, taste or nutrients. But it didn’t catch on, and the grocery producers group, which wants more salad ingredients OK’d for irradiation, blames both consumer wariness and a technical issue. Some of the bags the greens are sold in need approval to be zapped, too.
Irradiated meat has been around for years, particularly ground beef that is a favourite hiding spot for E coli. About 7 to 8 million kilogram of US ground beef are irradiated every year, says Ron Eustice of the Minnesota Beef Council.
That is a tiny fraction of the hamburger meat sold in the US, and it must be labelled so consumers can choose although some retailers advertise irradiated hamburger as a safety selling point. Thorough cooking kills E coli and other germs, but people don’t always get their meat hot enough.