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Organic Hepatitis A Outbreak

Opinion

Today’s organic consumer is well informed. They have made the connection between quality of life and their own personal responsibility as for how it’s going to play out for them. They understand the risks – the effects of hormones, GMOs, antibiotic, and pesticides – and that’s why they are buying organic.

– Christine Bushway, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association 
Naturally Savvy, August 2012

How safe are organic foods, especially when compared to conventionally grown varieties? Not as safe as many assume.

Three weeks ago, a recall was announced for certified-organic berries sold at Costco. According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 118 people in 8 states have now contracted hepatitis A infection linked to Townsend Farms frozen berries bought at the box store retailer. Hepatitis A infection is a debilitating condition that can last for weeks or months, and even be deadly. The specific item in the crosshairs—Organic Antioxidant Blend Frozen Berry and Pomegranate Mix—was apparently purchased in April.

The CDC says Costco removed the item from its shelves and Townsend Farms voluntarily recalled the item. But what about those who certify organic food? What’s their response?

Rather than test organic crops in the field for lethal pathogens resulting from improperly composted manure, authorities in the United States and Canada say they will continue to rely on paperwork to prove the safety of these niche products.

And organic activists, like Christine Bushway, quoted at the top of this article, are perfectly fine with this, not stopping to consider that it’s actually untested certified-organic foods, and not thoroughly tested genetically-modified (GM) varieties, that pose an everyday potential threat to the public. 

Should you worry?

You heard right. Certified organic crops are not tested. They’re not tested to ensure that prohibited substances like synthetic pesticides are avoided; nor to ensure that feces are kept out of the organic food chain. The system is based on good-faith compliance (record-keeping and record-checking) and a hope that nothing untoward happens. And it’s this complete lack of scientific rigor which has led to the current Townsend fiasco.

Did you assume, like most people do, that the term “certified” meant organic crops were being tested? After all, that is what that term means when light bulbs are certified to be 100 Watts or motor oil is certified to be 10W30. But that’s not what it means in the organic industry.

In response to this current scandal, supporters of the status quo in the American organic industry are attempting to put as much distance as they can between organic certification and food safety, as if to imply that these are two totally separate considerations.

“We don’t see that organic standards necessarily overlap with food safety standards,” said organic program manager Brenda Book with the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). “One thing organic-certification should not be confused with… is a food safety standard.”

Book sits in a chair that was once occupied by none other than Miles V. McEvoy, the current Deputy Administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). Back when he held Book’s position with the WSDA, McEvoy was, to his credit, one of the few people in America doing any organic field testing (1). And he brought this commitment to science with him when he moved to the USDA in Washington DC in 2008. He decided to try something unprecedented at the national level: to begin unannounced field testing to ensure prohibited substances and excluded methods were not being used on organic farms, as per USDA NOP §205.670. It was something the Consumers Union (the policy division of Consumer Reports) had called for more than a decade earlier (2).

Sadly, as with many good ideas brought to Capitol Hill, it took an inordinately long time for McEvoy to get others to act on his promise. The final program was eventually watered down to include only a small fraction (5 percent) of the more than $33-billion-worth of organic crops the USDA certifies every year, with little and likely no testing of foreign organic crops, like the ones implicated in the current hepatitis A outbreak scandal and which provide the majority of the organic food the USDA certifies for sale in America every year. 

And yet, in response to this organic hepatitis outbreak, apologists like Book still maintain that “organic certifiers are concerned with the prohibited materials side of contamination over the microbial variety,” as if to imply that McEvoy’s efforts to make organic certification more scientific apply only if someone cheats by using prohibited pesticides. Certainly consumers expect the USDA to clamp down on prohibited use of pesticides when they pay hefty premiums for organic food. But shouldn’t they also expect their organic food to be scientifically verified to be fecal-pathogen free? 

The irony is palpable. Organic activists, registered with the Internal Revenue Service as non-governmental organizations or foundations, spend millions of tax-free dollars on anti-GM propaganda and ballot initiatives for questionable labeling laws even though  ”over 25 years of research has failed to find any harm from GM technology.” Even the United Nations World Health Organization has declare that GM crops and food are perfectly safe. And yet, these very same anti-GM organic activists fail to see the immediate and very real threat right before them posed by untested “organic” food, which could be contaminated with natural bacteria. They want all GM crops to be tested according to a misinterpretation of the “precautionary principle,” but are not willing to test organic crops.

The buck stops here

The issue boils down to whether or not pathogenic microbes – which can give rise to diseases like hepatitis, E. coli and listeriosis (to name but a few) – qualify as prohibited materials in organic production. People like Book seem to be determining that this is not their responsibility. Let’s look at the section of the USDA NOP where proper manure management is outlined.

Section §205.203 is where we’ll find the USDA’s “Soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard.” Subsection (c) stipulates that “The producer must manage plant and animal materials…in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops [or] soil.” Subsection (c) (1) says manure must be composted (emphasis added). And finally there are subsections (c) (2) (ii) and (iii), where proper composting protocols (temperature and duration) are outlined in detail. Clearly, any failure to comply with §205.203 means an excluded method is being used, which could quite easily result in a prohibited substance – i.e. feces – making its way into the organic food chain.

Pretty straightforward. Right? But not according to most in charge of this multibillion dollar business. Why does the failure to keep such prohibited materials as raw manure out of an organic crop through improper composting not qualify as an excluded method in organic production?

As a former organic farmer and USDA contract inspector, I believe that USDA organic certification is, and always has been, a food safety standard. It’s just that no one has ever enforced §205.203 through unannounced inspections and field testing as the USDA NOP requires. Not surprising given that everyone involved in the organic industry has been busy attacking GM crops, along with all other forms of science-based advancement in agriculture, instead of working to improve upon how organic food is kept genuine and safe.The powers-that-be in the organic industry have had the proverbial blinders on for the last twenty odd years, never missing an opportunity to scare consumers with unproven theories about the dangers of modern agriculture, all the while failing to recognize organic’s shortcomings.

Anyone can see that testing is in order here, and that any food that fails that test should not be certified as organic. I’ve been saying this since I became an organic inspector in 1998, and I have a standing offer to debate this issue anywhere, any time with anyone from the organic industry. But, sadly, those opposed to across-the-board organic field testing have chosen instead to continue the full-frontal assault against science and technology, and to malign anyone who believes organics should be modernized.

Organic activists believe it’s perfectly acceptable to make use of the very latest in science and technology when it comes to all other aspects of their lives, whether it’s communications (smart phones and the internet), transportation (hybrid automobiles and high-speed trains), or energy production (solar panels and wind mills). But food production is the exception for some strange reason, and they actually believe farming needs to go backwards in order to move forwards. And the result, tragically, is outbreaks like this one. 

Is the worst behind us on this outbreak?

A remarkably similar case occurred in Germany three years ago when 44 people died and over 3,700 fell ill after eating E. coli-contaminated certified-organic bean sprouts. Hundreds of the survivors will require kidney dialysis for the rest of their lives. The source of that contamination was never definitively determined, although a nearby cattle operation was suspected of contaminating the water used to sprout the organic beans. This raises the question: What measures were being taken to ensure the water used in this organic sprouting operation was safe? Was there any testing?

Food scares can often drag on for weeks, even months, and are rarely solved satisfactorily. All consumers can hope for is that authorities learn from such disasters so that they might be prevented in the future. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

The incubation period for hepatitis A is between two and six weeks, and the berries were a frozen product, meaning some people may still have them in their freezers. This means this outbreak caused by certified-organic berries is likely to continue for some time. Many more cases could very well result, and lawsuits are already being filed. And yet, authorities remain silent on the most obvious preventive solution: start testing organic crops for fecal contamination. 

Even the lawyers representing the victims in this still-unfolding tragedy appear oblivious to the broader implications and obvious possible solution: organic field testing. Instead they are electing to sue small companies like Townsend Farms in Oregon which sourced some of the ingredients for its frozen berry mix in good faith from Turkey, and supplied the finished product to Costco, all under the supposedly watchful eye of the USDA NOP. We can assume that all the paperwork was in order throughout these transactions or none of the ingredients in this organic berry mix would even have made it to market. The problem is that the USDA didn’t bother doing any field testing. Until pressure is brought to bear on the USDA NOP for failing to uphold its own rules on preventing the contamination of organic crops with pathogens, this problem will occur again, and again, and again. 

Feeling better yet?

Keep in mind that for all its bluster, the organic industry in America still comprises just roughly 1 percent of total food consumption. What will happen when it reaches 2 or 4 percent? Shouldn’t the USDA be held to account and be forced to get things sorted out scientifically right now before total organic sales in America grow any further?

Defenders of the certified-organic status quo categorically reject the idea of routinely testing organic crops in the field, claiming it will make organic food too expensive. Ironically, when conventional growers make the same argument to explain one reason why they oppose mandatory labeling for GM foods, organic advocates are first in line to ridicule them for putting industry profits ahead of food safety. The difference is that there are no proven safety issues involving GM foods, but quite serious ones, as this incident shows, involving organic foods.

And yet, in spite of the preponderance of evidence as to which of these two competing agriculture philosophies needs more scrutiny, the USDA is planning to test only a mere 5 percent of the domestic organic crops it certifies every year, completely ignoring the lion’s share of the organic crops they certify on paper every year in far-off foreign lands like Turkey, along with China, Mexico and Brazil.

Even within the context of the organic industry itself, the cost argument looks bogus under close examination. The cost of the current paper-based organic certification system is at least $1,000-a-year per farm. A full-spectrum herbicide residue analysis meanwhile costs about $100, and the cost of a “Total Fecal Coliform” test is just $20.

It would appear, even to the casual observer, that the real reason organic leaders resist across-the-board organic field testing is because it will undermine the persuasiveness of their leading marketing ploy: to deride GM foods and other forms of advanced agricultural technology which are constantly being tested and have consistently proven to be completely safe.

As long as activists can stave off the commonsense requirement of testing organic crops, they can continue to freely ride a wave of ignorance in the marketplace, capitalizing on the average consumer’s assumption that anything natural must be better, even in cases where it can be lethal.

In fact, if the organic industry in its current state was held to the same rigorous scientific standards that the rest of the agricultural sector is held to, consumers might very well come to realize the proven connection between quality of life and the very technologies that organic activists reject, like GM crops, antibiotics, and pesticides. And then, well… they’d have to find something else to gripe about.


(1) Another person doing organic field testing was me.

(2) Letter of April 10, 1998, from Jean Halloran, Director of the Consumer Policy Institute, to Eileen S. Stommes, Deputy Administrator of the USDA‘s NOP, Docket No. TMD-94-00-2, NOP, published in the Federal Register (62FR 65890) on Tuesday, December 16, 1997.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared on The Genetic Literacy Project June 17, 2013. It has been edited to reflect updated information about the Townsend Farms hepatitis A outbreak.

© Food Safety News
  • Marge Mullen

    Thank you for speaking out and educating at least some of us!!

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    The author implies that safety protocols for organic produce are somehow less than those for conventional or genetically modified produce, when the same protocols are used both both.

    This is disingenuous, at best.

    The issue with the Hepatitis outbreak is less that the product contained organic produce, and more that the product contained produce from another country, but implied all the produce came from the US. There is concern about produce from other countries regardless of whether it is organic or not, because there is no effective way—under existing laws and regulations—to ensure all safety standards are met in other countries. This holds true for _all_ produce, not just organic.

    “As long as activists can stave off the commonsense requirement of testing organic crops…”

    This is made up of whole cloth, a fabrication of a battle that has never happened, and never will. There is no food activist who isn’t for the best testing possible of all products, much less organic ones. And there isn’t an organic food activist who isn’t for ensuring that organic standards are rigorously met.

    The new USDA standard is a minimum requirement for testing. And this testing has nothing to do with food safety, but only to do with what’s required to have an organic label:

    http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5101208

    Unfortunately, thanks to GMO and accidental contamination, it becomes increasingly difficult to produce GMO free, organic produce in this country. Therein lies another very real problem—one the author of this piece conveniently forgets to mention.

    http://www.progressive.org/0901/lil0901.html

    As for the claim that a “lions share” of the organic produce in this country comes from other countries, such as China, I take leave to call this out as a complete misrepresentation. Unless the author can provide links to proof of this assertion, I consider this statement to be fiction, not fact.

    I also remind the readers of this piece that the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks from produce in this country, especially the ones that have caused the most harm, have come from produce grown in this country, and produce grown using conventional, not organic, means. All I need say is “cantaloupe” and “peanuts” and my case is made.

    So rather than using this opportunity to undercut the organic industry—in the interests of companies like Monsanto and other big agricultural concerns—we should be looking at what we can do to ensure better package labeling (so we know where the raw produce is from) and better standards for _all_ produce and produce handling.

    And I recommend a good mystery or science fiction story if you’re looking for fiction that’s at least entertaining.

    • Granger Tim

      Oh, oh. Someone’s organic ox has been gored by facts again! This is soooo typical. No amount of complaining will sweep the many ugly truths about organic under the rug. You all should be happy to get paid twice the going rate for organic food and stop making such fools of yourselves arguing like 3rd graders defending the veracity of Santa Claus. We would let you have your organic fantasy if you weren’t always berating us and trying to force yourselves on us. You seem never to quit lashing out then you act all shocked when someone talks back. We wouldn’t even notice you if you just stuck to growing and eating and minding your own business. And if you didn’t poison people with hepatitis occasionally.

      • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

        Paid twice the rate? What on earth makes you think I’m an organic farmer? Did you even bother to read my comment?

        Scratch that, of course you didn’t.

        If you can find something that’s inaccurate in my comment, state it. Otherwise, I’ll just assume you’re nothing more than a passing troll, bent on lowering the level of discourse.

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you so much for a wonderful article. It’s good to hear at least one person in the organic world who understands that GM foods are safe.

  • Nancy

    Some of the best common sense factual observations about organic food I’ve ever read. How did this article slip past the censors? Glad it did though. Thank you, thank you for the balanced reporting!

  • McBee

    I quote & question from the article: “GM foods and other forms of advanced agricultural technology which are constantly being tested and have consistently proven to be completely safe.”
    I am all for more testing of ALL of our food …… BUT I do take exception to the above quoted statement regarding GM foods: “CONSTANTLY” BEING TESTED and “PROVEN” TO BE “COMPLETELY” SAFE. Please provide references for these statements. Long term studies have NOT been done AND 3rd party testing is restricted. Current government regulations are questionable due to revolving door political appointments between specifically Monsanto and regulating government agencies! My suggestion to all consumers is: “LET THE BUYER BEWARE” and “DO YOUR RESEARCH” and “FACTOR IN THE SOURCE OF THE INFORMATION BEING PRESENTED”.

    • http://raszl.com/ iraszl

      I think lots of research has been done on the safety of GMOs. Just in the EU: 15 years, 81 projects, 400 teams, €70 million spent on GMO safety studies. Details: http://ec.europa.eu/research/quality-of-life/gmo/index.html and http://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/pdf/a_decade_of_eu-funded_gmo_research.pdf

      The scientific consensus is that food derived from GMO pose no greater risk than conventionally bred food. No reports of ill effects have been documented in the human population from GMO. This is confirmed by various organizations including the WHO.

      http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/en/20questions_en.pdf

      Is it possible all these scientists and global organizations are somehow all part of a global conspiracy to mislead us? And they managed to be undetected for 20+ years?

      • farmber

        There is no “scientific consensus.” Since Monsanto and the other Biotech corporations control independent testing through their patent protections — this means THEIR testing says it’s safe while our “watchdog agencies” are relegated to rubber stamping the results. And without labeling there’s no safety traceability in the marketplace. Quite a Biotech business plan!

  • miss icy

    Popoff is an ideologue and hides the fact that conventional farms use manure, too, but “guidance” for use on conventional farms is far less strict than under National Organic Program rules. Conventional growers are not required to compost manure before using in fields, unbelievable, huh, but true. Organic farmers are required to compost.

  • Janine

    Interesting article and *comments*. Did I miss something or did the author explain how and on what schedule the fecal field testing for non organic crops is carried out?

  • VTChick

    What a silly article. When did GMO technology have anything to do with the presence or absence of pathogens on the finished food product? How many of the recalled products mentioned on this website have nothing to do with either organic or GMOs? The comparison is specious when talking about pathogens most likely introduced by an infected food handler with poor hand hygiene. The product contained fruit originating in the U.S., Argentina, Chile, and Turkey. Poor inspection of imports? Maybe. But it’s got nothing to do with organic or not.

  • Oginikwe

    This is a ridiculous article. Pathogens in our food have nothing to do with GMOs, which is a different subject entirely. The hepatitis A in these berries are the result of globalization since the pomegranate seeds came from the Middle East. Apparently, they were not inspected coming into this country when the red flag should have been when this started in the Nordic countries in April (Hepatitis A Outbreak in Nordic Countries Linked to Frozen Berries (FSN) 4/17/2013: http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2013/04/hepatitis-a-outbreak-in-northern-european-countries-linked-to-frozen-berries/).

    The issue should not be about organic or not, GMOs, or anything other than the globalization of our food and the misleading of consumers in believing that all of the berries in that bag were from stateside. The only orange juice that is completely stateside can only be purchased from the Florida Farm Bureau. The industry makes it so consumers have to read their packages with a freaking magnifying glass in order to figure out what came from where and understanding that the FDA manages to inspect less than 2% of imported food (organic or not) should scare everyone. Put up your own stuff: it’s the only way to know for sure. If you can’t, well, good luck.

  • FoodRevolution

    What a biased and untrue article..Clearly written by a Big agriculture supporter..

    • Sterling Ericsson

      Just went right for the shill gambit logical fallacy, huh?

  • Brigitte

    I can’t understand why organically grown food protagonists are so concerned about the safety of pesticides, food additives, GM foods etc which have not been demonstrated to cause safety issues & yet microbial hazards are just ignored when so many outbreaks have been caused from organically produced foods such as bean sprouts, vegetables & fruit. Whether the fruit is imported or local is irrelevant – some form of scrutiny needs to be applied to all suppliers to ensure that the foods are safe. The consumer buys these products because they believe they are purchasing a ‘safer’ product.

    • VTChick

      I don’t think most people buy organic because it’s “safer” except from the use of pesticides. Many people buy organic because they believe it’s a better way of farming that feeds the soil, encourages biodiversity, and treats animals more humanely. The farmer isn’t exposed to dangerous chemicals, and the environment benefits from the lack of petroleum-based fertilizers which were never part of any natural cycle of replenishing the soil the way manure is and always has been.

      • JohnH

        The manure used on organic farms usually comes from high density type feeding operations where animals are fed GMO feed grown on conventional farms using synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers. Organic farms are dependent on synthetic fertilizers, they just don’t admit to themselves that growing legume crops cannot deliver the nitrogen they require. Fish emulsion is also used by organic farmers, and that is obtained by factory ships strip mining the oceans of life.

        • VTChick

          Where do you get your information from? Organic farms use manure from animals fed GMOs? Are you aware of biodynamic farms where manure comes from the animals on those farms? That organic farmers use many sources of nitrogen, including animal by-products, plant-sourced materials, and mined minerals? Legume cover crops, or green manures, can be an excellent source of
          N when grown in a crop rotation system that includes them on enough land
          and allows adequate time to produce sufficient biomass. Incorporating a
          vigorous stand of alfalfa, red clover or hairy vetch early in the season
          can provide most if not all the N needed by a subsequent vegetable crop.