With a fair amount of fanfare , last week the FDA approved irradiation of iceburg lettuce and spinach. For restaurant owners, the question is whether they should invest in this process.
Like pasteurization, irradiation may provide an added level of protection from food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli. When used in combination with other state-of-the-art food handling practices, irradiation should dramatically reduce the chances of transmitting food-borne illnesses to consumers.
The FDA estimates that irradiated fruits and vegetables will cost two to three cents more per pound than nonirradiated products. Irradiation does not substitute for any other food safety practices or investments. Indeed, without added precautions against cross-contamination or field-to-fork regulation of the supply chain, irradiation provides little benefit.
Perhaps more significant than cost is the question of consumer acceptance. The good news is that the FDA does not require labeling of irradiated foods by restaurants (as it currently does for supermarket products). Yet some organic foods advocates are passionate about what they believe to be harmful effects of irradiation and are already lobbying restaurants and consumers to steer clear of irradiated foods.
At this point, arguments against irradiated foods are similar to those against pasteurization and appear to be grounded more in emotion than in science. In weighing issues of consumer acceptance and lowered risk to human health, businesses should understand that unlike economics and politics, in food safety, perception is not reality. Failure to irradiate will likely result in more personal injury claims and a significant threat to the business and the brand.