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Organic Food No Guarantee Against Foodborne Illness

Eating organic may limit your exposure to pesticides. It may make you feel environmentally conscious. It can help support local farmers.


But scientists warn it won’t necessarily protect you against foodborne illnesses. Organics, like conventionally farmed foods, can harbor dangerous pathogens including E. coli and salmonella.
A 2006 study in the Journal of Food Science did not find a significant difference in the prevalence of E. coli between organic and conventional produce. And a 2009 Kansas State University study did not find a difference in the prevalence of E. coli between organically and conventionally raised cattle.
Organic foods have caused their share of outbreaks of disease. Last winter, for example, sprouts from an organic farm in Illinois infected at least 140 people in 26 states and the District of Columbia with salmonella. And over a three-month period in 2011, a massive outbreak of a deadly strain of E. coli linked to sprouts from an organic farm in Germany killed 50 people and sickened more than 4,300 in several countries.
Organics are a big business in the U.S. Sales of organic food and beverages totaled $26.7 billion in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association, with sales of fruits and vegetables up nearly 12 percent over 2009.
Consumers buy organic for a number of reasons, including to avoid certain pesticides, to encourage smaller farms and to support agriculture that doesn’t introduce harsh substances into the environment. In a June 2011 health survey by Thomson Reuters and National Public Radio, 58 percent of respondents said they preferred organic over nonorganic foods. The most popular reasons cited: to avoid toxins and support local farmers.
Despite the public’s favorable perceptions, however, “the science doesn’t show a difference,” said David Lineback, senior fellow in food safety at the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the University of Maryland.
Federal organic standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture do not include explicit requirements for food safety, nor are they intended to. The primary purpose of organic farming is not to prevent foodborne illness but to practice and promote environmentally sustainable agriculture.
“We don’t purport that organic is healthier than conventional food,” said USDA spokeswoman Soo Kim.
“The organic standards do not directly address issues of food safety but instead production and processing and handling methods of agricultural products,” Kim said in an email. But, she added, “organic certification by the USDA doesn’t preclude any operation from having to meet the food safety and environmental requirements” of two other federal bodies: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Organic labeling standards are based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product.
For crops, this means growing on land without the application of any prohibited substances (as defined in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990) and without the use of genetically modified organisms, most conventional pesticides or sewage sludge, for example. Organic livestock must be raised without hormones, fed 100 percent organic feed without byproducts and given year-round access to the outdoors.

Organic Sprout House from News21 on Vimeo.

Amy Annable, 28, Sprout Operations Manager at Edrich Farms in Randallstown, MA discusses sprout safety.

Carrie Vaughn, vegetable production manager of the recently certified organic Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, Md., said she believes the food safety risks are lower on her farm because of strict standards for manure composting that come with organic certification.

USDA’s organic program requires composted manure to be heated to at least 131 F for a minimum of either three or 15 days (depending on the composting system) in order to reduce pathogens.
Vaughn said the close relationship she has with her buyers and their families motivates her to be vigilant about food safety in the field. “It’s terrifying for me as a grower to think that I could grow something that could kill a small child,” she said. “So we’re careful on the farm, and we also work directly with our customers. … If something ever happened, it would be so easy to trace that contamination back to us.”
Lineback, at JIFSAN, remains skeptical of what he calls consumers’ “I-know-the-farmer” attitude. That trust, he said, is rooted not in science but in consumers’ feelings about food and a distrust of corporate agriculture.
There is even debate over whether organic food is more nutritious, as proponents maintain. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported in 2010 that a study of 50 years of academic articles on the topic found that organic and conventional foods are nutritionally comparable.
So, which is better for you: organic or conventional? In the end, as Lineback noted, “it’s a matter of choice and what people believe.”
Madhu Rajaraman wrote this story while a Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow from Maryland. The story was part of the “How Safe is Your Food?” project of News21, a program of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to foster in-depth, interactive and innovative investigative journalism at journalism schools across the country. It is headquartered at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Republished with permission.
© Food Safety News
  • It is important to understand the facts – and spread the word – about organic and food safety.
    All food, whether conventionally or organically produced, is susceptible to E. coli and salmonella. That is why strong food safety regulations and practices are critical.
    While organic is not a food safety system, many of the requirements for organic are also good food safety practices. Organic producers and processors must keep detailed records from the farm to the table. They are also subject to rigorous announced – and unannounced -certification inspections by third-party inspectors.Plus, all products bearing the organic label must comply with all federal, state, FDA, and international food safety requirements. In fact, in congressional discussions on food safety legislation last year, traceability and other practices of organic production and processing were held as a gold standard for other agricultural sectors to emulate.
    Coupled with the fact that organic regulations prohibit the use of toxic and persistent pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, GMOs, sewage sludge, and artificial ingredients, the organic system does more than meet basic food safety standards. It goes beyond them, ensuring organic products are produced and processed in a transparent manner consumers can trust.

    • Mark Jones

      I don’t want to pay more to eat food, fertilized with feces. I told my primary care physician that I don’t eat organic, and he did not tell me I am going to suffer adverse effects, because my primary care physician, doesn’t practice woo, like Mercola.

  • Rene

    First of all, I don’t think any food is 100 percent safe. You still need to take precautions and cook meats thoroughly. However, I certainly do not trust any studies, any government official regarding the safety of my food. They want to make money and have done so at the expense of our health. I can tell you that my daughter and husband were sickened by non-organic, arsenic laced apple juice that the “experts” on t.v said was not dangerous. I can tell you that I was sick over the past 3 yrs. to the point of water even making me sick! I made the switch in August to all organic food. I feel FANTASTIC! No more sickness and digestive troubles. I refuse to believe the liars any longer–just sayin’.

  • susan Rudnicki

    R.e. the “which is better FOR YOU?” at the end of the article. This question is answered with the narrowness typical of short-term benefit in mind—and anthropogenic benefits, specifically. Better for You should be viewed in the way it is increasingly being validated as a legitimate concern—all life on this planet is linked in myriad, complex ways, and your SHORT TERM needs are not the sum total of the answer. Agriculture, as practiced by the current industrialized model, is devastating the soil, water and air resources of the planet. Soils suitable for growing take eons of time to generate, yet we treat them and their biological microscopic fertility community as “dirt” “better for you” SHOULD take this into account, and the building of soils, water and air purity is the LONG-TERM “better for you” concept. These issues are much graver than “what people believe and a matter of “choice” ” Nature, and our scientific study of it, does not exist in this existential vacuum, funneled into a simple answer of “choice” The author’s simplification is reckless and unscientific

  • Steve

    Talk about setting up a straw man in order to knock him down!
    “Consumers buy organic for a number of reasons, including to avoid certain pesticides, to encourage smaller farms and to support agriculture that doesn’t introduce harsh substances into the environment. In a June 2011 health survey by Thomson Reuters and National Public Radio, 58 percent of respondents said they preferred organic over nonorganic foods. The most popular reasons cited: to avoid toxins and support local farmers.”
    Our reporter then goes on to equate “avoiding toxins” with supposed claims that Organic offers inherent protections against food borne illness. But this is erroneous — USDA’s National Organic Program makes NO such claims…
    It seems like the reporter is getting this confused with consumers buying organic to avoid PESTICIDE toxins — something that is well documented with multitudinous demonstrated environmental and health benefits.
    In a back-handed way this report does raise the question of why food safety is only limited to microbial contamination. In a nod to industrial agriculture Governmental food safety purview has been purposely limited to virulent types of microbial vectors (E. coli, listeria, salmonella, etc) that can sicken or kill susceptible consumers shortly after consumption.
    But in the real world of what we eaters put into our mouths and swallow into our bodies there are myriad pesticides, food processing chemicals, etc that we ingest every day that can be just as deadly in accumulated sub-lethal doses. Consumers, at least, know that Organic is the only label that certifies food is produced without toxic synthetic chemicals, GMOs, etc.

  • I worry for the organic industry when I hear such unqualified support for what the term Certified Organic supposedly means.
    Why is everyone (Steve, susan, Rene and the anonymous person from the Organic Trade Association) so quick to assert that “Organic is the only label that certifies food is produced without toxic synthetic chemicals”? The fact is, we’re operating on faith at present – faith backed by mountains of paperwork, and nothing more. And we’ve been operating in this manner for over a decade.
    Assumptions like “organic regulations prohibit the use of toxic and persistent pesticides, antibiotics…” and claims that “rigorous announced – and unannounced – certification inspections by third-party inspectors” keep everyone honest, are without basis. With no proper enforcement it’s like trying to reassure investors who were burned by Bernie Madoff by saying “SEC regulations prohibit the establishment of Ponzi schemes!” Only on paper I’m afraid.
    I trust that everyone above is aware that the Deputy Administrator of the USDA National Organic Program (Miles McEvoy) is finally proposing that 5% of organic farms and processing facilities be subjected to testing. I worked for years as an organic inspector and believe me, this is long overdue, not only from the perspective of food safety, but also to ensure that prohibited substances (toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizer) are not being used anywhere in the organic food chain.
    Of course testing 100% of farms and processors would be even better (not to mention cheaper), but let’s give McEvoy credit for at least moving forward. If his proposal is accepted it will constitute the first step towards actually proving that organic food is purer, more nutritious, and perhaps even safer than regular food.
    Mischa Popoff
    Author of Is it Organic? The inside story of the organic industry
    Some people won’t like this book, but you will
    Osoyoos BC Canada