A New Year's Prediction - Irradiated Leafy Green Vegetables Are Coming

As sure as the spring of 2007 will be green, politicians and Think Tank "experts" in the US will increasingly suggest that food irradiation is the best way to prevent foodborn illness. If recent history is any guide, opponents of food irradiation will be accused of threatening the health of children, to the extent they have resisted irradiated salads. The limitations of irradiation technology might get in the way of this advocacy strategy, however. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, when exposed to ionizing radiation "lettuce and other leafy vegetables turn mushy". Of equal import, we think, "alteration of some flavor compounds" can be expected. Yumm. According to the FDA website:- "FDA does have a petition under review to permit the irradiation of multi-ingredient foods, including prepackaged (bagged) fresh produce, for the purpose of controlling microbial contamination. This petition, if approved, would permit the irradiation of prepackaged fresh spinach at specified doses. FDA is reviewing this petition". Perhaps a packing house engineer has worked out a way to expose the leafy greens to a precisely controlled radiation dose, just sufficiently strong enough to meet pathogen standards and still avoid the mushiness thing. Or, perhaps they have worked out a genetic engineering solution: radiation proof spinach! Oh the joy, when customers see the label 'Triple Washed and Nuc'd, For Goodness Sake!'

Let's think about the prospects for a Glowing Salad Scenario in the future. If the campaign to irradiate leafy greens were all out, meaning that the US FDA became bound by law to mandate irradiation of all non-organic produce...this will be increasingly plausible if a second, and especially if a third E-coli outbreak occurs in 2007...it would certainly increase the market share of organic and locally-produced greens. Rapidly. The only way around that unintended outcome would be for agribusiness interests to lobby for including organic and farm market produce in the irradiation requirements. That advocacy strategy would lead to a huge push back by small farmers and consumers. Considering this possibility, we hope that US grocers, in readying their response to the coming debates, will remember what Clint Eggplant said in the movies: "You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?'"

Further predictions:

2007 will see stronger segmentation between industrial-scale produce and organic/local produce. Public health will become a significant differentiator, getting added attention from consumers and investors. Expect plenty of op ed articles and political talking points criticising organic produce (unemployed climate skeptics have to find new work).

Home kitchen gardens will gain popularity; and,

An NAS panel will be appointed to deliberate on which post-harvest treatment technologies are best, adding to consumer frustration. The unwillingness of Congress to tackle the underlying issues of how food is produced before harvest will strengthen the green consumer lobby.

Tags: EPA | Food Safety