Safe food supply is costly, time consuming

If it wanted to, the leafy greens industry could zap away Escherichia coli O157:H7 with a quick dose of irradiation.

The FDA moved last month to approve irradiation for fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce as a means to kill pathogens.

But irradiation isn't the kind of thing that happens overnight, nor is it clear that it will happen at all.

Salinas Valley, the epicenter of the salad products industry, where lettuce is king and spinach a crown prince, is at a pivotal point: Which road is the highway when it comes to ensuring that the tender salad mixes, the exotic blends of baby greens and leafy bundles that end up on consumers' plates are, in fact, safe? Behind the push for irradiation approval was the Grocery Manufacturers Association, but much of the local produce industry was caught off guard by the approval.

California-based Dole Food Co. confirmed that it was testing irradiation. But Ray DeRiggi, president of Dole Fresh Vegetables, has said the technology is just one more option the company would evaluate to improve food safety.

For one, it's expensive, says Dennis Donohue, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, which means that the technology could be prohibitive for smaller producers. And he suspects irradiation could face something of a consumer acceptance hurdle without widespread marketing efforts to convince the public as to its benefits and safety.

Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, expects those added costs would ultimately get passed along to the consumer.

No silver bullet The FDA has said it's not meant to substitute other measures designed to ensure food safety and cleanliness, and still advises consumers to wash lettuce and spinach leaves before consuming them.

The technology of irradiation is already used for ground beef, a common host to Escherichia coli O157:H7.

Patrick Hughes, vice president of sales and marketing for Sterigenics International, Inc., which produces irradiation equipment, said irradiation is already used for poultry, strawberries and spices, in addition to ground beef, effectively killing E. coli, salmonella and listeria.

While confidentiality agreements prohibit disclosure of company names, Hughes said Sterigenics is negotiating with several regional food processors and growing associations.

Getting an irradiation facility up and running could cost $10 million to $20 million, but Hughes said those costs would likely be shared by producers. Technology also exists for smaller, in-house irradiation equipment, he said.