Buying Organic Does Not Protect Against Food Borne Illness
With food recalls such as this month’s massive nationwide egg recall and the latest Fresh Express lettuce recall hitting headlines, consumers are beginning to wonder about the safety of their food and how they can avoid becoming ill. Some may mistakenly believe that a switch to organic foods or local foods may help them avoid food-borne infections such as Salmonella and E.Coli. However, this is a myth – any food has the potential to be contaminated.
Food-borne illnesses affect about 76 million people each year. The bacterial contamination that leads to infection affects both small regional firms and massive international corporations. The most common bacterial contaminants are campylobacter, salmonella, and E.coli 0157:H7.
In an effort to reduce the incidence of food-borne illness, about 15 government agencies participate in regulatory requirements and inspection of food plants. The US Department of Agriculture inspects meat and poultry. The US Food and Drug Administration inspects most other foods. The USDA and FDA share responsibility for the regulation of eggs.
Meat and poultry risk food born illness, while organic spinach a source of E. coli
Meat and poultry top the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list of foods most likely to cause food-borne illness causing about 1350 of the 21,000 illness reported in 2007. Leafy vegetables come in third, causing 590 illnesses.
Fresh, bagged organic spinach was identified as a source of a large E.coli outbreak in 2006. The product was packaged by Earthbound Farms and came from a California cattle ranch that leased land to vegetable growers. The spinach was not sold as organic, because the company was in a 36-month transition period to become a certified organic grower under California law (California organic laws are among the strictest in the United States.) However, the vegetables were grown using organic farming techniques, including the use of manure as fertilizer.
Leafy greens such as spinach, swiss chard, and cabbage are the types of produce most susceptible to E.coli contamination because they are in direct contact with the soil. Washing vegetables before serving is very important, even if the package says that they were previously washed.
In the case of eggs, under a new ruling effective July 9, 2010 that strengthens FDA and USDA oversight, egg producers must maintain a written Salmonella Enteritidis prevention plan and must document their compliance. However, the rule only applies to large-scale egg producers with 50,000 or more laying hens. Those with less than 50,000 but at least 3,000 hens must comply by July 9, 2012. Producers who sell eggs directly to consumers or who have less than 3,000 hens are not covered by the ruling.
Organic eggs are produced by hens that are fed a special organic feed. The definition of organic depends upon the agency that defines it, but most organic eggs come from hens that are not given hormones, do not receive prophylactic antibiotics, and who eat a feed not treated with chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Unfortunately, organic eggs can become infected with Salmonella just as easily, and perhaps more so, as eggs produced by conventional farming methods.
Chickens become contaminated in many ways, including pecking at insects that pick up bacteria from the environment, pecking at droppings that carry germs or drinking contaminated water. Free-range chickens may have better living arrangements than traditional factory chickens, but they have a wider range of environment in which to pick up bacteria. In one study, free-range chickens had higher levels of PCB’s, organic chemicals linked to negative health effects in both animals and humans.
Eggs become contaminated when a hen contracts the salmonella enteritidis bacteria and it silently infects her ovaries, contaminating eggs even before the shell has formed.
Also consider that some food-borne illness takes place after harvest or when the food hits the stores. A grocery worker, for example, who has not practiced good hygiene can stock contaminated food and then cross-contaminate when handling another food – even an organic product. The same can happen in a home when raw meat comes in contact with fresh, ready-to-eat vegetables.
The bottom line is that both organic and conventional foods can become accidentally contaminated with bacteria. Consumers should take steps in their own homes to prevent the most common reasons for most food borne illnesses, such as proper hygiene and following recommended cooking and food storage guidelines.