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Health Team

Radiated Fruit and Veggies Could Come to Stores

Posted April 14, 2008 5:57 p.m. EDT
Updated April 14, 2008 10:37 p.m. EDT

A form of radiation might be the way to stop the spread of food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli and salmonella, that hospitalize hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Scientists linked bagged spinach to a widespread, deadly outbreak of salmonella in 2006. Since, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been looking for means to kill bacteria on food.

Researchers presented their answer to the American Chemical Society this week: Irradiate fruit and vegetables with gamma rays.

"It kills the bacteria, makes it so they're not able to reproduce and not able to make you sick," microbiologist Dr. Brendan Niemira, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said. "It works. It's very effective, and it doesn't harm the food."

The federal Food and Drug Administration approved the use of irradiation on meat. The method, though, is rarely used, because most E. coli and salmonella bacteria are killed when meat is cooked completely.

Proper washing is the most commonly used protection for raw fruits and vegetables, but experts say it only kills 90 percent of contaminants.

"Irradiation, on the other hand, reduced it by 99.99 percent," Niemira said.

Government research shows that irradiation is safe for produce, but can zap out important vitamins and nutrients if it is overused.

The FDA must approve its use for fruits and vegetables.