Recalls for organic foods are on the rise. (Photo: iStock/Jennifer Fox for Yahoo Health)
The word “organic” has all kinds of connotations: healthier, cleaner, better for the environment. In fact, 71 percent of people in a 2011 University of Arkansas study said they believe organic foods are safer than conventional ones, while 11 percent of folks were specifically concerned about the potential for bacterial contamination in conventionally grown foods. “The consumer sees organic as everything that is good,” says Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, PhD, head of the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota.
Yet, despite this reputation, there’s been a sharp jump in the number of recalls of organic food, according to a new report by Stericycle, a company that helps businesses handle recalls. So far in 2015, 7 percent of all recalled foods have been organic, the report’s analysis of USDA and FDA data reveals. In 2012 and 2013, just 1 percent of recalls were for organic foods.
Although recalls can occur for a handful of reasons — including mislabeling and the discovery of a potential allergen in a product — bacterial contamination is the one that tends to freak us out most. And, unfortunately, organic foods aren’t just being recalled for the more benign reasons: In March, for example, Amy’s Kitchen voluntarily recalled nearly 74,000 cases of organic spinach due to possible Listeria contamination. And the same month, Wegmans recalled its organic walnuts, citing potential Salmonella contamination as the reason.
Why the uptick in organic recalls? Stericycle has speculated that the increased demand for organic ingredients may be partly to blame — we’re eating more of it, so naturally, more recalls would follow. “That’s true,” says Lawrence Goodridge, PhD, director of the Food Safety & Quality Program at McGill University, “but it’s more nuanced than that.” As the demand for organic produce has skyrocketed, organic farms have gone from small-scale operations to super-farms. “If that produce [grown at large farms] gets contaminated, it’s spread all over the country,” he explains. That means the grower is more likely to issue a recall, bringing national attention to the issue.
But, size aside, are organic farming practices generally filthier? Might the decreased reliance on pesticides — which ward off insects and the bacteria they bring with them — mean an increased odds of contamination?
Organic farms do use manure as fertilizer, so it might seem obvious that the produce they grow would pose a greater risk of food-borne illness than conventional fruits and vegetables. But the research doesn’t necessarily bear that out: A 2012 research review in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which analyzed more than 200 studies, concluded that E. coli contamination was equally likely to affect organic as it did conventional produce. (Likewise, bacterial contamination of chicken and pork was unrelated to farming method.)
Generally speaking, “there’s no real difference between organic and conventional, with respect to safety,” Goodridge tells Yahoo Health. Diez-Gonzalez echoes this sentiment.
Related: What is Organic Farming, Really?
Yet there are studies out there suggesting that organic food is actually more prone to bacterial contamination. For example, in a 2015 study of produce from California farmers’ markets, the vegetables sold by organic farmers were twice as likely to be laced with Salmonella than those sold by conventional farmers.
What’s going on? If manure is properly composted — the temperature is monitored, the pile is regularly turned — there won’t be dangerous microbes in the mix, says Goodridge. “But if it’s not composted properly, then there is a risk that bacteria will be spread to the produce. The larger, commercial farms, of course, understand the importance of composting. But many people who grow produce in their backyards or on small mom-and-pop farms may not compost manure properly. I see that all the time. Then, they’re essentially spreading raw manure onto that produce. That’s what can lead to contamination.” In a University of Minnesota study, organic produce fertilized with manure that had been aged for just six to 12 months was 19 times more likely to be contaminated with E. coli than produce from farms that used older compost.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to know whether a farm properly composts its manure — and, as Diez-Gonzalez points out, it’s not just organic farms that use this type of fertilizer: Conventional farms sometimes use manure, too.
Composting issues aren’t the only factor to blame for bacterial invasion. If farm workers don’t wear gloves or fail to wash their hands after bathroom breaks, or if animals defecate on the crops, contamination can occur — and this can happen regardless of whether the farm is organic or conventional. That may explain why, when composting is done properly, the risk of produce problems seems to be about the same for the two growing methods.
What about meats? Although organic farmers do have fewer antimicrobial options than their conventional counterparts, meat typically isn’t eaten raw, so it’s not as big a health risk as produce, explains Goodridge. Plus, he says, the meats industry has shaped up since 1993, after an E. coli outbreak linked to Jack in the Box hamburgers. “That really led the meat industry to take a hard look at how they produce meat,” he says. “The vegetable industry is probably a good 10 to 15 years behind the meat industry in food safety. The major outbreak that really opened the eyes of the [produce] industry didn’t happen until 2006 — the E. coli and spinach outbreak.”
Bottom line: Food safety concerns shouldn’t be your motivation for either choosing or foregoing organic. Nutrition isn’t a consistently reliable reason, either — research hasn’t definitively proven organic food to be nutritionally superior. And pesticides? Yes, the chemical load will probably be lower with organic foods. But keep in mind, even conventional farms observe “withdraw” periods — that is, they stop using the chemicals a certain amount of time before harvesting their produce — and organic doesn’t always mean no pesticides.
Regardless of which route you go — organic or conventional — it’s a good idea to wash your produce, although that won’t eliminate bacteria entirely (it will, however, remove any lingering pesticides). Unlike washing, cooking can completely kill off any germs that have hitched a ride on your produce. So roast, boil, or grill your produce when you can, and make sure to thoroughly cook your meat.
And when you’re shopping, resist the temptation to choose convenience over safety: “Fresh-cut produce is more contaminated than, say, a whole head of lettuce,” says Goodridge. The explanation is simple: The more a food is handled, the more likely it is to become contaminated. So skip those little plastic tubs of pre-cut watermelon, and do the dicing yourself.
But really, the unfortunate truth is, there’s not much the consumer can do to avoid contamination, which is why Diez-Gonzalez hopes the practice of irradiation, where electronic beams are used to decontaminate food, will gain ground. In 2003, U.S. schools moved to introduce irradiated meat to their lunch menus, but parents fought hard, citing a lack of knowledge about the long-term safety of the technology.
“The term ‘irradiation’ — it scares people,” since it calls to mind nuclear disaster, says Diez-Gonzalez. “But irradiation kills bacteria, and there is no risk to the consumer. If you walk into a supermarket, you won’t find a single irradiated product.” Maybe, he hopes, the very real fear of food-borne illness will eventually outweigh the less persuasive fear of irradiation.
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