Jean Weese could be described as the Barbara Mandrell of food safety. In the fashion of Mandrell, the singer who embraced country music long before it became cool or acceptable in many quarters, Weese, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food scientist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science, was touting the benefits of irradiation even while many watchdog groups considered it well beyond the parameters of respectable discourse.

Now, after years of what seemed like a long trek through the desert, she and many of her colleagues feel vindicated — at least partly. The federal government announced in August that it would allow food producers to subject spinach and lettuce to mild doses of radiation to kill food-borne pathogens.

In announcing its decision, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stated that it believed irradiation not only will go a long way toward ridding foods of potentially harmful pathogens but also would extend the products’ shelf lives — something Weese and other experts have argued frequently and passionately for years.

As far as she’s concerned, FDA’s decision is long overdue.

“We’re one of the few countries that don’t allow massive amounts of food to be irradiated,” Weese says, adding that the Netherlands, where irradiation is widely used, is considered to possess one of the safest food supplies in the world.

“Other European countries also have been irradiating a wide range of food for years,” she says.

Weese was one of several U.S. food safety researchers who used laboratory research years ago to prove to federal regulators that irradiation could work — and work well — with leafed produce.

Weese and fellow Auburn researchers injected E.coli bacteria into the stems of lettuce and then irradiated it to see if this would destroy all of the bacteria.
 Irradiation was shown to kill bacteria on the surface and within the plant — for Weese a testimony to the effective role this procedure could play in protecting consumers against bacteria that could not be removed merely through simple washing.

She says this recent FDA decision likely marks the beginning of what will likely involve several other types of produce, starting with tomatoes and peppers, she says.

“The most recent food safety scares have been with tomatoes and peppers, and I suspect these will be the next types of produce approved for irradiation,” she says.

Weese describes irradiation, which uses gamma radiation to kill microorganisms, as a very simple process. The products are taken into a room and exposed for a short time to Cobalt 60. What remains after treatment is a product that looks, tastes and feels the same way it did before irradiation occurred, though one completely free of potentially harmful bacteria, she says.

Irradiated meat has been available on U.S. grocery store shelves for years, Weese says, adding that irradiation for leafy produce was stymied partly by concerns over what effect this procedure would have on produce with high water content. Based on her own studies, she believes these concerns will likely prove groundless.