Beginning today, producers can begin dosing fresh greens: iceberg lettuce and spinach with a hint of radiation designed to reduce the amount of salmonella, E. Coli and listeria hiding amongst the leafy goodness.
Please note, that is reduce, not 100% eliminate. Growers and packagers are still expected to follow the FDA’s other rules about handling salad mixes and fresh spinach. Consumers (i.e. you) are still encouraged to wash the greens before eating them.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association has been bugging the FDA to allow this treatment since 2000. Testing has shown that a small shot of radiation will reduce the number of bad bugs which may be present while not compromising taste, texture or nutritional value. Because current regulations require that any irradiated food be labeled as such, consumers have generally shied away from purchasing eggs, beef, oysters and spices which have been dosed. Not surprisingly, producers and manufactures aren’t real pleased about that so now the lobbyist groups can start pushing the FDA to relax that rule, something that is already being considered.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest points out that irradiation has zero effect on viruses, a growing issue in food safety circles. Thus far, there have been no conclusive studies which show irradiation creates toxic food or off flavors. The FDA would like you to know that it can actually increase shelf life.
The amount of radiation is quite small, just enough to kill off most of the salmonella and some of the other germs without wilting the spinach. For me, I will probably skip this stuff. I’m sure it will cost more (or maybe less, at first, to entice people in to buying it). I’m not that scared of spinach and I don’t want to encourage these guys to start zapping all kind of fruits and vegetables (the original goal of the GMA was far more encompassing).
Just remember this: salmonella and E. Coli don’t originate in plants. These bugs have animal homes including humans, by nature. If you really want to keep your produce clean of bacteria, you need to be aware of how the greens are fertilized and watered and what animals the fields are exposed to. The E. Coli spinach outbreak was traced to wild hogs that wandered through the California farms growing all that organic spinach. The recent salmonella outbreak while associated with peppers and tomatoes was likely spread to those plants by contaminated irrigation systems.
I buy mixed field greens and spinach in those plastic clamshells from Meijer or Kroger or Horrocks. Its usually Earthbound Farms but I’m not making a endorsement for any particular brand. The reality is, this stuff is often bagged or boxed in some far off place, shipped in a refrigerated unit to my local store and could be several days or even weeks old by the time it shows up on its shelf. I only buy organic and this radiation treatment is not allowed under the USDA’s Organic Guidelines. If you find someplace selling mixed greens by the pound in open bins, its probably fresher and more likely locally sourced.
If you are really feeling ambitious, grow your own! Its actually quite easy with a long narrow planter and a nice windowsill that gets some sun. Baby lettuces are a cold-weather crop that only require medium sun exposure so you can keep growing them well in to the fall outdoors or year round in a window. They are also ideal for progressive planting. Start a selection of seeds in 1/3 of your planter. About 1-2 weeks later, start a second planting in the next 1/3 and finally, round 3 another 2 weeks later. By then you will probbaly be harvesting your first round and the whole thing starts over. You can buy individual seed packets to make your own custom mesclun mix or even a pre-mixed packet with popular varieties of lettuces and herbs.
I’m planning to do my own version of mesclun using my aerogrow after we get back from vacation. I’d do the window planter thing but 2 cats+ a bucket of dirt equals a really big mess. Speaking from experience on that one!
Chris and I are going on a vacation to the Georgian Bay area of Ontario. I’m hoping to get some posts done and prepped to just publish while I’m gone but I’m not hopeful. Tonight we are “roughing” it in a hotel but then we’ll be tent camping till Thursday. Although I guess its possible that the park will have wi-fi. Anyhow, I’ll have some good adventures to talk about when I get back.