Only consumers in a vegetative state could think that the E.coli outbreak of contaminated spinach that has killed at least one person and sickened about 170 others in 25 states cannot affect other crops and occur again in the near future.

Each year about 76 million Americans become ill by tainted food. Many with severe cases of foodborne disease are children, the elderly, and persons with compromised immune systems.

Most foodborne illness last for only a day or two. However, 325,000 people are made sick enough to be hospitalized and more than 5,000 deaths occur because of foodborne disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most foodborne illness can be mitigated by good personal hygiene and by following the Food and Drug Administrations recommendations on proper food handling and preparation:

Regular and thorough hand washing, avoiding cross contamination of meat, poultry, and seafood and other groceries; cooking and reheating food to prescribed safe temperatures and properly refrigerating, freezing, and defrosting foods.

However, when it comes to fruits and vegetables that can be eaten raw, such as spinach, we must explore methods other than cooking to destroy deadly bacteria like E.coli.

(Now that I’m eating more fruits and vegetables – including spinach, a favorite of mine – this issue has affected my life more than I thought it would.)

Because people must eat to live, the risks of foodborne disease is ever-present. The fallout from foodborne disease can include death and severe economic loss. It is estimated that spinach growers have lost about $200 million because of the E.coli outbreak.

Therefore, now is a good time for scientists, government officials, and consumers to begin a public dialogue about using existing technology like food irradiation as a proactive means to lessen the occurrence of foodborne disease outbreaks.

Food irradiation is one method along the continuum of modern science and technology that can reduce the possibility of foodborne illnesses.

“Like the pasteurization of milk and pressure cooking of canned foods, food irradiation can destroy bacteria and parasites that would otherwise cause foodborne disease,” says the Infectious Diseases Society of America on its website.

Irradiated food is exposed briefly to a radiant-energy source — the amount of energy depends on the food. Those energy waves kill bacteria and other pathogens and insects that can make human beings sick. Irradiated food retains most of its nutritional value and its color, shape, texture, and aroma.

Irradiation does not make food radioactive and unsafe to consume. Both the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association endorse food irradiation.

Currently 40 countries use irradiation to help protect their food supply. NASA uses food irradiation to ensure food safety for its astronauts and irradiation can be used to sterilize surgical instruments.

Irradiation will raise the cost of produce by a few cents per pound, but the increase is minimal in comparison to human suffering and death and economic loss caused by foodborne illness.

Because of the spinach scare I’m now more open to eating irradiated foods and I’m thinking of asking my grocer more about it.

Will you learn more about food irradiation? Will you consider asking your grocer to stock irradiated produce?