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Food Safety and Organic Food

07.apr.03, Katija Blaine, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

07.apr.03, Katija Blaine, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Surveillance of foodborne illness is complicated, full of uncertainties and only a small percentage of cases are actually identified. Best estimates based on active surveillance in the U.S. have found that up to one-in-four Americans each year are sickened from the food and water they consume. Comparable Canadian numbers would mean approximately 7 million people contracted food or waterborne illness each year.
Surveillance data is collected based on the microorganism involved, such as salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli O157:H7, and so on. Other groups have attempted to compile a database of suspect foods that is, are there particular high-risk foodsÐwith limited success. No comprehensive data exists linking specific on-farm production practices to human illness,
although case studies and anecdotes abound.
An episode of the popular U.S. television show, 20/20 in 2000, sparked a fierce debate over the microbial safety of organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables. Are organic foods safer than conventional foods? On the show, correspondent John Stossel concluded that organic produce was no safer than conventional produce and might in fact be more dangerous because of the heavy use of manure in organic farming (Ruterberg & Barringer, 2000). Such statements have been supported by several prominent food scientists (Tauxe, 1997; Forrer et al., 2000) while the organic industry has argued that their strict standards on manure usage reduces such risks (DiMatteo, 1997). The organic industry has refrained from making direct claims of improved microbial food safety. Katherine DiMatteo, president of the Organic Trade Association has stated publicly that "Organic is not a food safety claim" (Juday, 2000). But such claims are unnecessary for an industry which has been described as the fasted growing sector within the entire Canadian agri-food system. Growing consumer demand for organic foods has been estimated at 25 per cent per year, mainly as a result of growing consumer concern over the human health and environmental effects of genetic engineering and chemical pesticides as well as perceptions that organic foods are healthier, tastier and safer.
But what little scientific evidence there is indicates that the risks from conventionally and organically produced food are essentially the same. Efforts are needed to reduce levels of risk at the farm level for both systems.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are a significant source of the estimated 2 to 7 million cases of foodborne illness each year in Canada. Consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables should be encouraged and increased for the nutritional benefits, but there are also risks that need to be minimized; because of their very natureÐfreshÐanything that comes in contact with produce such as water, hands, and soil amendments, among others, has the potential to contaminate.
One risk factor is manure, which is used in both conventional and organic farming. To date there is insufficient evidence to conclude whether the possibility of pathogen transfer from manure to organic produce is more or less likely than on conventional farms. Further, although the national organic standards require manure from non-organic sources to be composted there are no requirements for manure produced by organic livestock. And composting is not a guarantee of pathogen free produce. According to the most recent expert report from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT, 2002) "the available scientific information is insufficient to ensure that food-borne pathogens are killed during composting and soil application." Manure is also a problem for meat products since it contaminates hides, feathers and skin during livestock production. During slaughter and processing, carcasses occasionally come in contact with fecal material and become contaminated with pathogens. The IFT expert report found that organic meat and poultry could have higher levels of pathogen contamination than conventionally processed meat and poultry "because organic production standards prohibit the use of irradiation and chemical treatments during processing" thus restricting the available methods for pathogen removal. But that's the science part, and any group can come up with guidelines. The real challenge is compelling individual producers, processors, retailers and consumers in the food-to-fork food safety system that pathogenic microorganisms pose a serious public health threat and need to be actively minimized. That's a matter of awareness.
Certification as organic does not require that the grower use production practices that will eliminate, reduce or control the presence of pathogenic microorganisms. The Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) standard for organic agriculture is the minimum standard enforced by the various third party organic certifiers. Comparison of the CGSB standards to the Canadian Horticulture Council's (CHC) on-farm food safety guidelines has shown a significant degree of commonality. Manure management, water sources and other common sources of pathogens are routinely assessed and controlled through the organic inspection/certification process. In some cases, microbial food safety standards are obtained indirectly, but microbial considerations are not discussed and there are many gaps. Manure composting is recommended, not to kill potential pathogens but rather to kill any weed seeds, reduce nitrogen loss or destroy pesticides (OATI, 2001). While the U.S. (USDA) National Organic Program has requirements for manure application and composting, Canada does not. Further there are minimal efforts to inform organic producers of microbial risks on the farm and potential interventions.
The production of safe food can only be achieved through a co-ordinated effort at all points along the farm-to-fork chain. Since food production begins at the farm, it is the responsibility of all primary producers, organic and conventional, to take efforts to minimize microbial risks from their products. A significant part of this is producer awareness of the potential points of contamination. Since organic growers already have a certification and inspection system, the CGSB organic standards could be expanded to better incorporate food safety concerns. Specific additions would include ensuring adequate facilities and training to ensure worker hygiene and recommendations for processing and processing water. The documentation, monitoring and regulation of high-risk inputs give organic growers a head start over conventional growers who may be trying to implement an on-farm food safety system from scratch. It is also the responsibility of food producers to use knowledge to aggressively reduce the risk of food and waterborne illness, whether conventional or organic or somewhere in between. And with both conventional and organic systems, verification through microbial testing is required to demonstrate that actions match words.
This is not about organic and conventional. Food safety goes far beyond ideology. As has been stated elsewhere, poor farming and processing practices are the product of poor farmers and processors. Katija Blaine is a doctoral student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.

References:
Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB). 1999. Organic Agriculture.
National Standard of Canada. CGSB. CAN/CGSB-32.310-99. DiMatteo KT. 1997.
Does Organic Gardening Foster Foodborne Pathogens? To the Editor. JAMA.
277(21):1679-80.
Juday D. 2000. Are organic foods really better for you? Natural grown
killers in organic food make it no safer than produce grown in pesticides.
BridgeNews Service (Knight Ridder) February, 14. Ruterberd J and Barringer
F. 2000. Apology highlights ABC reporter's contrarian image. The New York
Times August 14. C1. Tauxe RV. 1997. Does Organic Gardening Foster
Foodborne Pathogens? In Reply.
JAMA. 277(21):1679-80.