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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Your Salad – Is the convenience worth the risk? Is irradiation the silver bullet?

While I was “vacationing” in Greece and Italy over the last weeks, Fresh Express was recalling even more romaine lettuce salad products because of potential E. coli contamination (an earlier Salmonella recall occurred two months ago).  Of course, that does not count a Fresh Express outbreak that did sicken people in April and no recall occurred.  Also, in July Ready Pac Foods Inc. recalled 702 cases of Spinach following a positive test for E. coli O157:H7.  The recalls followed random positive result for E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella conducted by a third-party laboratory for the Food and Drug Administration.

In the recalls, no illnesses related to the recalled products have been reported. However, earlier this year shredded romaine lettuce processed by Freshway Foods, Sidney, Ohio, was contaminated with E. coli O145, a less-known strain, sickening at least 30 people in five states.  In that outbreak we still do not know the name of the farm in Yuma that grew the lettuce.

In the middle of the 2006 Spinach E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, I asked the following question – “Is convenience worth the risk?”:

When you’re eating a bag, you may be eating parts of ten, twenty, thirty, forty bunches of spinach or lettuce. You have a couple of pieces of bad heads of lettuce or bad bunches of spinach and it gets massively processed in a big facility that gets spread out among hundreds if not thousands of bags. Perhaps we’ve reached a point where all of us need to strike a new balance between what is convenient and what is risk.

Of course, buying non-bagged product – or, even growing your own – is no guarantee that the product is not contaminated.

Perhaps it is time to engage in an open discussion on irradiation? Over a year and a half ago, I penned, "Pros and Cons of Commercial Irradiation of Fresh Iceberg Lettuce and Fresh Spinach: A Literature Review."

  • Catherine N.

    My concern about irradiation is that it could encourage workers to become even sloppier in the food handling than currently. Also, my other concern is that it could damage micronutrients we are unaware of.
    I grew up in the Middle East, we bought food fresh every day or every other day. People got sick from pesticides, not from other stuff on the food… I almost wonder if, by what we have done to the food supply, we have limited our bodies ability to fight things off?
    What happens when a bug develops that can withstand irradiation? Its happened with other things. I just feel like the less we mess with our food, the better. (that is not to say we shouldn’t have safety precautions, but there really is no magic bullet…what we’ve thought in the past has turned around and caused worse problems)

  • John Gear

    As a nuclear engineer turned attorney, I am astounded (and appalled) that an attorney who has performed heroic work trying to make the agribiz giants accountable would suggest that the solution to food contamination lies in post-contamination treatment rather than in prevention.
    The failures in the food system now all have a single common cause, the broken link between farmers and eaters, a gap that is occupied by corporate giants who are, in clinical terms, sociopathic — exhibiting no conscience, by law interested only in their own gratification (profit), unable to empathize with others. And into this gap you want to throw irradiation? Bad, bad idea.
    Bottom line is this: The only institutions I would trust with irradiating facilities for food are those who can operate complex systems with such care and integrity that they don’t poison their customers. Those people don’t need irradiation. Ergo, the only ones who need it are the ones who shouldn’t have it.