Irradiation to enhance food safety

Does anyone remember the E. Coli breakout back in 2006? I do. There has never been a quicker way to convince a 19-year-old to eat vegetables until you take lettuce out of their sandwiches for a couple of months.

According to the LA Times report[1], these greens are washed in potent chlorine bath, often up to three times, before they are bagged and shipped to the retailer. This standard procedure has a reported 90% effectiveness in killing the microorganisms that may cause harmful effects to the human body.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather not take that 10% chance to get sick. In the single breakout of E. Coli due to cross contamination with the cattle back in 2006, 200 people became ill and three lost their lives. That’s the 10% chance that nobody should have to take.

This past month at the ACS National Meeting in New Orleans, researchers from the USDA presented their findings and results of radiation treatment of fresh produces. Irradiation of high energy beams of photons or electrons, said the scientist, can disrupt the DNA of these pathogens. While the chlorine rinse offers a 90% effectiveness in killing bacterias on the surface of the leaves, it is not able to penetrate beneath the surface. Irradiation method has a reported >99.9% effectiveness in wiping out pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria, and the high energy beams allows penetrating power that works inside and outside the leaves.

Some members of the scientific community are calling irradiation one of the “few intervention steps that indeed can penetrate the leaf surface and kill microorganisms.”

Irradiation for enhancement of food safety is permitted for some hamburger meat, poultry and spices, but not for fruits and vegetables. However, there has not been any health problems associated with eating irradiated food. So why is FDA steering away from adopting an improved method that could potentially save lives?

Consumer experts and food safety researchers offer some of their speculations:

1. Irradiation may damage the apparence of the product, which may not be as appealing to the customers
2. Nobody would buy lettuce from a bag with a radiation sticker
3. The treatment could shorten shelf lives of the products
4. Technically, irradiated produces cannot be certified organic

Though reasonable, it is hard to believe that the above mentioned points would stop either FDA or independent research institutes from further investigating in a method that could possibly be so much more potent in eradicating pathogens than the existing practice. Perhaps these novel ideas would not suffer as much if we could deliver more transparent and correct ideas regarding the applications of radiation.

Using innovative ideas to improve the quality of our everyday lives, isn’t that what science is all about?


[1] USDA scientists say irradiation could be key to food safety

P.S. True to scientific spirit and for the benefit of the minorities out there, I will summarize and translate my discussion in lolcat. I can has radeashuns: on ur vegitablez, keelin ur baktiriaz.

Edit: Originally mentioned by Bethany Halford and Lisa Jarvis in Chemistry Newsbytes.


  1. I would want to buy lettuce with radiation stickers!

  2. Me too. That would be so cool. It would be a great way to freak out the ignorant.

  3. I think the primary problem is an overwhelmingly ignorant population that still does stupid crap like calling Berkeley a “nuclear free zone”. In the article they talk about consumer groups being concerned about radioactive waste and accidental radiation releases. Aside from these not really being an issue, especially if we are intelligent about the design, it is hard to mention “nuclear” and get people to not immediately think of bombs or reactors.

    So use the nuclearblog ppls, and change that public misconception!!!

    It is seriously needed though. 1 in 4 Americans suffer food borne illness? 1 in 4? WTF? That sounds like something i would expect to hear about India or someplace like that.

  4. I love living in the south. I have a nice big house all to my self, with a huge back yard. I grow virtually all my own vegetables and fruits. The climate is pretty good and I can grow stuff virtually all year long. And I have a green house and use that in the coldest months to keep me lush in produce.

    I grow 2 kinds of lettuce (as lettuce was mentioned in the post), 15 kinds of peppers, yellow squash, zucchini squash, potatoes (2 types), 2 types of onions as well, mushrooms (5 types), carrots, celery (I grow very little of this though), 9 different types of tomatoes, 10 different herbs, strawberries (my favorite food in the world), blueberries, raspberries, blackberries. I also recently planted 2 apple and 2 orange trees, I will see how these fair. But it will be a while before I can even consider letting them fruit.

    I love fresh produce. I have no clue how people eat the store bought crap all the time. Seriously, everything taste avogadro’s number times better.

    I also enjoy being health. Fresh produce is good for that.

    And I hate seafood (which is why I was not to fond of New Orleans). I also got some kind of food poisoning and why I did not make it to the SciMix.

    That was a lot of writing about not much…

  5. Lots of luck. Why do you think docs use the term magnetic resonance imaging rather than what NMR really stands for? Because we knew we’d never get people into them if we did — particularly since the early ones were quite noisy and claustrophobia inducing. Even with the soothing name change, 10% of patients couldn’t make it all the way through the test in the early days.


  6. This is absolutely about the public misconception of radiation. And until we come up with an accurate, defensible term that describes the process without using “radiation” in any form, it’s likely that packagers will not advertise the fact that they’re doing it. This is one more result of living in a country that is generally math and science phobic.

    It’s not sterilization or pasteurization, how about “decontamination”? Still not quite right, but closer.

  7. Just say we used high-energy solar light to clean the lettuce. 😉

  8. Another suggestion for the FDA folks: High energy electromagnetic wave cleansing methods (HEEMWCM).

    Hello, does anyone NOT see our frustrations here? There we have a promising field of science that may solve *many* existing problems and nobody is attending to it. Let’s face it, the aging of nuclear science community is a serious problem. We need fresh minds. We need new takes on things. We need more brilliant minds in this field to utilize these wonderful tools that the previous generations of hard work and sheer genius had shared with us.

    Chemistry students are steering away from nuclear science because of all these public perception and the lack of government AND academic acknowledgment on its merit and importance.

    The bottom line is: we shouldn’t have to HIDE the technology that could be saving YOUR behind. Sorry.

  9. “Lack of government acknowledgment” is dead on. Its not necessarily that they discount the importance of nuclear science, but that they are afraid to FUND it. I haven’t encountered any academics who call nuclear science a worthless field. I have encountered many, however, who agree that there is no money in it. This could and should be different.

    I suppose it is no surprise why so many nuclear ppl become bitter. First they see an opportunity to use these technologies to “better the world” and all that. Then they spend years developing them, only to be told that the public won’t accept it because they are misinformed. That isn’t exactly the fault of the public though. I mean if you aren’t a scientist you have to trust the word of the scientists who tell you that these technologies are safe. With all the conflicting reports on cloning, global warming, biofuels, etc., the public must have a hard time trying to figure out who is trustworthy.

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