Just as the dog days of summer arrived and news slowed to a crawl, something did pop up to talk about. “Recalls of Organic Food on the Rise, Report Says” headlines an Aug. 20, 2015, story in The New York Times. Based on data from Stericycle ExpertSOLUTIONS, a company that manages all types of recalls, the story says there has been a “sharp jump in the number of recalls of organic food products.” Reader warning: I am about to say a couple of things that may sound contradictory. First, if I ran the Organic Trade Association, I would not worry too much about either The New York Times nor the Stericycle reports because I don’t sense any change in the overall trend. recalltag_406x250Second, if I were an organic or non-organic food consumer — and we are both, to some extent — I’d review my sense of worry about contamination of all the food I consume from pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, and several others that make people sick quickly and can sometimes result in an unpleasant death. Food Safety News has occasionally reported on Stericyle’s quarterly recall data. I credit the company with a couple of accomplishments. They’ve come up with a data collection system that works for them, they’ve shared it with the public through the media, and their executives are not afraid to share their comments on trends. “What’s striking is that since 2012, all organic recalls have been driven by bacterial contamination, like salmonella, listeria, and hepatitis A, rather than a problem with the label.” Stericycle VP Kevin Pollack told the NYT. “This is fairly serious and really important issue because a lot of consumers just aren’t aware of it.” But Pollack’s company is in the recall business, not the food business. And its comprehensive approach is to count units recalled, not just the number of recall events that occur. Counting units recalled makes sense for their purposes — sort of a nuts-and-bolts approach. But I think we’ve all come to accept that when it comes to food, some recalls are more important than others. Any recall associated with an outbreak, for example, becomes a top priority for us. A recall of 100 boxes of cantaloupe contaminated with Listeria, for example, is much more of a concern than 100,000 packages of misbranded gum. Also, Stericycle does as well as it can with the information it collects from federal agencies. But while every automobile recalled in the U.S. is reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the same cannot be said for food. You might think that if USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recalls are added to those from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it would add up to 100 percent. It does not. Frequently, most small, localized recalls are mostly reported by grocery stores and others that never make the two big national lists. Food Safety News has missed the support we long received in covering these lesser-known recalls from Phyllis Entis, who for five years published a daily digest that included a couple hundred other sources for just these kind of recalls. Since she retired to write books, we’ve been on our own with those. Since recalls do remain about 99.99-percent voluntary, it’s fairly easy to see how a deli that sold one bowl of bad Jell-O might not go national to get it back. But, FDA plus FSIS does not equal 100 percent. We really could use a statistical system for food recalls that goes deeper in capturing all and collecting all important characteristics. Without that system, I do know that pathogen contamination of organic food is NOT a new problem. It’s been around since the day USDA minted the Organic label. I just don’t want to keep score by the number of units in a recall. Important to protecting the integrity of the Organic label, 400,000 units of frozen spinach were recalled in the second quarter for over-the-limit pesticide levels. To food safety, though, it was not that important. More useful would be to track recalls involving sicknesses and deaths and then keep track of the characteristics involved. I remember being inside the Peanut Corporation of America’s big box-sized plant in Blakely, GA, when I realized I was standing on an area of the floor painted differently than the rest. Looking around, I saw some arrows or symbols marking the area where I stood as being restricted to “Organic.” When almost 4,000 products were recalled for containing peanut butter, peanut paste, or just peanuts from PCA, the list included both organic and non-organic products. Lots of companies produce both organic and non-organic lines, but unless the word “organic” is in the name of the recalling company, it’s often hard to tell what a food product recall really involves. We need more and better data on these important recalls. Again, Stericycle does well with what it has to work with. It reports 178 FDA food recalls in the second quarter, which ended June 30. Sixty-two percent were due to bacterial contamination, with Salmonella and Listeria being the most common contaminants during the three-month period. Vegetables were the top product category, accounting for 61 percent of FDA recalls, which were up a total of 47 percent from the first quarter. USDA reported recalls totaling 10.7 million pounds during the period, 10 times more than the first quarter. And 90 percent were for undeclared allergens. There were 17 companies involved in USDA recalls during the second quarter. Stericycle also reports that “65 percent of the recalls (as) being related to healthy food,” a segment they say is now a part of the $162-billion-a-year “health and wellness” industry. Citing USDA, Stericycle says 70 percent of consumers “are likely to believe a food is safer, more nutritious, or of higher quality if it bears an organic label.” If, as I’ve suggested before, organic and non-organic food labels contained outbreak information for the previous year, listing outbreaks, illnesses and deaths in their category, consumers would have the information that would keep those expectations grounded in some reality.

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  • Tom Edlind

    It may be stating the obvious, but organic food has been and always will be at higher risk of contamination with bacteria and fungi. Reducing these is, after all, why pesticides (including antibiotics) are used. The good news is that organic food is less likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant strains. Ideally, it is also less likely to be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, although no guarantees there.

    • Elizabeth E

      Since when are antibiotics considered to be pesticides?

      • fluttterby

        A pesticide is a generic term for any substance that is used to kill an unwanted organism. Antibiotics kill bacteria, and are, therefore, pesticides: specifically, they are bactericides. Other pesticides include insecticide, rodenticide, fungicide, and miticide. Each is a pesticide for a specific group of organisms.

  • Saladpatch

    Tom could you provide references for your claims that “organic food is less likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant strains” and “less likely to be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria”?

  • JMT

    Dan, your acknowledgement that recall data are scarce for the common organic foods (and nonexistent for any of the local farmers market stuff and CSA produce) is right on the mark. That secrecy/apathy in organic production and marketing is precisely why these recall trends for organic foods are significant — these recalls represent only the tiny tip of the iceberg. When a significant portion of scantily inspected organic food is routinely found to be contaminated, so too must be a large portion of the vast under-the-radar organic stuff that’s sold everywhere for cash with no receipts, no production records, no inspection, no testing, no record of transaction whatsoever. Just because food poisoning from this local organic stuff afflicts only a few people at a time in a sparse pattern across the country makes the problem no less important. Not to mention the recent misguided push by organic ideologues to drag locally sourced organic produce into hospitals and nursing homes under the pretense it is healthier than thou (which we now know it is not). It is shameful we must wait for reports of food poisonings of hospital and nursing home patients to begin rolling in before we act to assure clean food supply chains to those institutions that serve elderly and immune compromised people. But that’s how it always works – reactive instead of proactive. Something to keep in mind next time you are roaming the farmers market.

    • LP

      O boy. I am not sure that non-sense you just pecked out is what Dan was going for. There is so much to discuss in what you wrote, I am on the fence as to whether you are trolling or not.
      Nope….you’re trolling.

    • Sarah G

      Interesting Point.

      As “icebergs” go — with recalls from “healthy food” accounting for 65% of all recalls according to Stericycle stemming from a tiny organic food segment that is only about 3% of the total food stream, this is one huge tip of what must be one colossal iceberg of organic food contaminated with “e coli, campylobacter, salmonella, listeria and hepatitis A”!

      Who knew this? How would anyone know what is actually behind those little routine bouts of salad & fresh fruit indigestion? Pretty sobering. A strong immune system seems to throw the little illnesses off in just a couple, three days so I don’t fear death or anything like that. I just never connected the dots before and I thought it was normal for fruits, especially.

      Now I have to wonder how much of what’s keeping me “regular” with these foods might really be mild food poisoning. I am no longer part of the 70% of people who automatically assume “healthy food” really is healthy just because someone told me so. Thanks for the heads up on this!