This report aired Dateline Sunday, March 25
What would make two grown men eat spinach laced with E. coli?
That’s the question Dateline NBC set out to answer six months after an E. coli spinach outbreak killed four people and sickened more than 200 in 26 states.
The men who were willing to eat the E. coli-laced spinach work for SADEX Corporation in Sioux City, Iowa, one of only three irradiation plants in the country. The Food and Drug Administration approved the use of irradiation on meat in 1999, and some think it's time to use it on fruit and vegetables as well.
“Irradiation is an idea whose time has come,” says Dr. Dennis Maki, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Wisconsin.
Maki wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine last fall that “irradiation kills or markedly reduces counts of food pathogens without impairing the nutritional value of the food or making it toxic, carcinogenic, or radioactive.”
Harlan Clemmons, the president of SADEX, says modern irradiation technology has nothing to do with anything nuclear or radioactive. In fact, he says it's more accurate to call it "electronic pasteurization" — food enters a machine and then passes under accelerated electrons. It all takes about two seconds and SADEX claims the bacteria are killed.
So Dateline asked Midwest Labs of Omaha, Neb., to contaminate some spinach with E. coli.
We then took the bags of spinach to SADEX, where it was irradiated. After adding some salad dressing, Clemmons and colleague David Corbin chowed down. Each ate two bowls.
After their lunch, we raced the leftover spinach back to the lab to be re-tested. Good news for the salad eaters — the irradiation had, in fact, killed the E. coli.
What about the taste and texture?
But were taste and texture of vegetables affected by irradiation?
To get an expert opinion, Dateline enlisted the help of "Produce Pete" Napolitano and asked him to take a blind taste test, comparing vegetables that did and didn't go through the irradiation process. Pete's been in the produce business for more than 30 years and appears on WNBC-TV in New York.
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"The iceberg is crunchy," Pete said after eating untreated salad.
"The crunchiness, the freshness, everything is there," he said after eating the irradiated version. "It's the same."
Still, Pete doubts consumers will be willing to buy a package of produce labeled "irradiated."
"The problem is it's a scary word, it's a very scary word, and that's really going to stop the people," he told us.
Another potential stumbling block — the cost.
"The sheer capacity of irradiators that one would need to take care of all of the foods that might be contaminated is just not there at this point," says Dr. Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "And this does add cost as well. And that's something consumers may be willing to pay for. But I think they may not."
So while the technology exists to kill E. coli in fresh produce, the government hasn't approved it for routine use on produce. The petition to do so has been languishing at the FDA for years. An FDA spokesman told us the petition is now under active consideration, but in the meantime, consumers have to make a choice— whether or not to eat fresh vegetables.
And that choice is especially hard for the very young and the elderly, whose immune systems make them those most vulnerable to e-coli poisoning.
One victim's story
Michelle Matthews of Eagle Creek, Utah, and her 2-year-old daughter Arabella both became seriously ill from spinach in early Sept. 2006. Arbella's kidneys shut down and she had to undergo dialysis and multiple blood transfusions.
"I thought, 'There's no way someone can suffer that much and survive,'" recalls Michelle.
According to Matthews, the doctors were upfront about the health dangers E. coli posed. There's no antidote for E. coli poisoning. Doctors just treat the symptoms and hope for the best.
And it didn't take much produce to poison little Arabella. "She had had a sandwich with spinach on it," says Michelle. "It was just a few leaves."
Arabella managed to pull through, but another toddler, 2-year-old Kyle Allgood, was not as fortunate. He was one of four who died in the outbreak.
"We can say all day long that we have the safest food system in the world," says Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who specializes in cases involving victims of E. coli-contaminated produce. "Well, we don't. And we have systems that are broken. We have things that need to be fixed."
Marler represents Michelle Matthews, who is suing Dole Foods and Natural Selections/Earthbound Foods to cover her past and future medical bills and her pain and suffering. He says the industry has known about and ignored the problem for years.
"It's easy in these situations to go, 'I'm not sure exactly what caused the problem, so there's nothing I can do. But I'm making a lot of money selling spinach and lettuce in a bag, so I'm going to keep doing that.' They didn't take the time to figure out what the problem was," says Marler.
Pin-pointing the problem
Last week, California and federal officials announced they pinpointed the source of last fall's E. coli outbreak to a small cattle ranch about 30 miles from California’s central coastline .
The bad news? Dr. Kevin Reilly of the California Department of Health says soil and water testing has shown Salinas Valley is teeming with E. coli.
"This E. coli contamination is out there and it's happening," he says. "I don't know if we have evidence that it's increasing, but it's persisting. It's definitely alarming."
E. coli is spread through animal waste. And yet, throughout the Salinas Valley, cattle and wildlife coexist near crops and irrigation canals.
"The ability for those animals to come in contact with the spinach or the lettuce needs to be removed," says Reilly.
Reilly says once produce is tainted, not even the chemical baths at the processing plant will kill E. coli. "That processing isn't removing the bacterial contamination," he says. "It remains and is causing illness. That's clearly worrisome to me. It should be worrisome to everybody."
Once E. coli-contaminated produce slips through the system, consumers have no way to defend against it. A thorough cooking will kill E. coli if it's present in hamburger, and cooking spinach will protect you as well. But people don't cook fresh salad.
Irradiation critics contend that while irradiation technology may kill E. coli bacteria, it won't fix contamination issues— and may only actually mask the underlying problems in food manufacturing.
So what to do?
There's a push in Congress for tougher federal standards, and mandatory inspections. But Reilly says that's impractical.
"We can't inspect our way to food safety," he says. "It's just too much production going on at any one time. We can't be on every site watching every practice."
Reilly says industry and government are now working on an agreement where companies that follow tougher safety guidelines would be able to use a government seal of approval on packaging. While the standards are still being hammered out, they are expected to include requirements for buffer zones between cattle and farms, a ban on the use of raw manure fertilizer, and frequent testing of irrigation water for E. coli.
In the meantime, some retailers are taking their own measures. Costco, the country's largest wholesale buying club, now requires suppliers to test produce before it's shipped. Workers test samples right from the fields for E. coli and nothing leaves the plant until the results come back.
If Reilly had a youngster, or an aging parent at home, would he feed them lettuce or spinach from the Salinas Valley?
"I'm a diabetic," he says. "I'm one of those persons who are at higher risk. I'm eating spinach, and I'm eating fresh lettuce right now as well. What is that risk? It's really quite low, but it's there."
Michelle Matthews says risk analysis misses the point.
"My kid got sick," she says. "It's still just too much. They need to do more."
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints