India alone grows 1,000 varieties of mangoes in such delectable variations as the sweet, orange-skinned Alphonso, the Bombay Green and the Bangalora. Here in the U.S., we rarely see more than one lonely variety at the local supermarket, but that's all about to change. Soon consumers will be able to sample the sweet and tart nectars of many more imported fruits and vegetables from Thailand, India and Mexico piled high in the produce section. But there's a catch: this fruit will arrive irradiated.
Shoppers may not be the wiser. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules in place since 1986 have required the radura-a symbol for irradiation that resembles a flower in a broken circle-on placards in front of produce displays or on packaged food like ground beef, along with the statement: "treated with radiation" or "treated by irradiation." But last April, the FDA proposed a revision to those rules. Food which had undergone irradiation, but not "material change," would no longer have to bear the radura logo and companies could replace the word "irradiation" with the more consumer-friendly "pasteurized" or something else innocuous. Public comment on the current proposed change closes in early July. Industry insiders argue that irradiation is a necessary answer to food-borne illness such as last year's E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in California-grown spinach, which left three dead and sickened 200 others. It was the 20th such outbreak in lettuce or spinach since 1995. "I look at it from a unique perspective," says Dennis Olson, the director of the irradiation program at Iowa State University. "All of our bagged spinach and lettuce and fresh-cut produce goes through a metal detector. How common is it to find metal? It almost never happens. How often does E. coli 0157:H7 happen? Almost never. [But] if that produce had been irradiated there would have been none."
The Global Connection
A commitment to public health is certainly in the best interests of consumer and industry, but a burgeoning worldwide market plays an equally important role in the sudden interest in irradiation. One third of commercial spices in the U.S. are already subject to irradiation-treatment by gamma rays or electron beams to kill pathogens-as are some 15 to 18 million pounds of ground beef, according to Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council. In 2000, the FDA reported that 97 million pounds of food products were irradiated annually. But, excluding spices, these...