Researchers are experimenting with x-ray technology to zap dangerous bacteria that hide in foods such as leafy greens, tomatoes, ground beef and, most recently, peanuts.
A new x-ray machine being tested at Michigan State University can reduce pathogens 99.999%, a higher percentage than traditional methods such as chlorine washes, food experts say. The technique, which uses a low-dose form of irradiation, destroys the bacteria on delicate foods without turning them to mush.
As such methods improve, some food safety experts say irradiation is a necessary step that could prevent many illnesses and deaths tied to E. coli and salmonella. In August, the Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation for iceberg lettuce and spinach, which have been responsible for some of the worst outbreaks in recent years. That approval is expected to open doors to more irradiated foods.
“The question is, do we want to keep on working with technologies that are nineteenth and twentieth-century technologies or do we make a decision as a country to move into the twenty-first century?” asks Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M University.
About 76 million Americans are stricken with food-borne illness each year. In the increasingly global food economy, a single head of contaminated lettuce can spread across state lines and sicken many people.
Peanut products contaminated with salmonella have sickened more than 650 people in 44 states and killed at least nine since December. And in 2006, spinach tainted with E. coli from one field in California caused one of the worst nationwide food-poisoning outbreaks in recent years, killing three people and sickening at least 205. A few months after that, in two separate outbreaks, at least 150 people became ill from eating iceberg lettuce at Taco Bell and Taco John's restaurants. As each recall is issued, consumer confidence in food safety diminishes.
Irradiation, also known as cold pasteurization, kills harmful bacteria by briefly exposing food to ionizing radiation, or short energy wavelengths. Irradiation has already been approved for use on many foods, including spices, poultry, wheat flour and ground beef. FDA officials, who have conducted irradiation safety evaluations for more than 40 years, say they have "determined the process to be safe for use on a variety of foods."
But there are many barriers to irradiating foods on a larger scale, particularly fresh produce. Some experts say it’s not ready for mass production due to a lack of major facilities. Also, irradiation is not permitted on certified organic products. And much of the public is still uneasy about buying foods that carry an international symbol for irradiation.
“The recent FDA approval for irradiating spinach and iceberg lettuce is misleading to the public because it’s not ready for industrial use by any means,” says Will Daniels, who oversees food safety at organic leafy greens producer Earthbound Farm. “There are some food items currently irradiated, but by no means are these irradiation facilities geared up to irradiate everybody’s fresh produce.”