October, 1999

Fruits of Thought

Organics And E. Coli

The Center for Disease Control data for 1996 – the most current year available – indicates that of all confirmed E. coli 0157:H7 cases that have been traced to food, over one third of these cases (36 percent) were traced to organic and natural foods. Organic lettuce and non-pasteurized juices were the prime sources of contamination. Organic and natural products constitute only between .5 and 1.5 percent of the food supply, so this level of contamination is wildly disproportionate.

The produce trade is particularly vulnerable to food safety problems because of the parity nature of the product. Put another way, if one brand of soup has a problem, consumers can easily identify that brand from the labels, easily remember it because it is a well-known consumer brand and easily select an alternative brand. In produce, the commodity orientation means all of that particular information tends to be lumped together in the mind of any individual consumer. So if one farmer, say of watermelon, has a problem, it is highly likely that all vendors of watermelon will suffer from the publicity given to the problem.

This “we’re-all-in-it-together attitude” is what leads food safety to be an industry concern and it is why trade associations are always coming up with handbooks and manuals to help industry members do a good job with HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) and other procedures that contribute to safe food.

The conventional produce industry has always treated the organic community with a kind of “hands-off” approach. This is partly because conventional agriculture didn’t want to be seen as the “bully” trying to snuff out this incipient industry. It also is partly because, at around one percent of total fresh produce sales, the organic industry isn’t all that significant; and finally, it is partly because most conventional growers and handlers don’t know very much about organics to be giving advice or making demands.

Conventional growers may not like the yields that organic farming produces, and wholesalers and retailers may question its appearance, availability or price, but the “cottage industry” reputation and favorable media image has protected organic producers from many food safety inquiries.

That really must change. It is not easy to get good statistics, and one year’s statistics should never be taken as meaning anything with certainty. None the less, the numbers are a serious cause for concern. After all, consumers who purchase these products, often paying a premium to do so, are not expecting to run any risk of E. coli contamination – certainly not a higher risk than with conventional product.

And the concern traces itself back to one problem to which attention has to be paid: the use of manure in the raising of organic food products. It is commonly accepted that farmers should never use raw manure. Instead the manure must be properly composted to insure that potentially harmful bacteria, including E. coli 0157:H7, does not get on the food.

But there are problems. Traditional composting has not been rigorously tested to ensure that it is sufficient to kill all relevant bacteria. At the University of California, Davis, Dr. Dean Cliver, who is studying manure composting and its relationship to bacterial risks, has said that typical composting methods are simply not sufficient to kill E. coli 0157:H7. Besides, there are no laws or regulations dictating composting practices, so there is no assurance that organic farmers follow the customary procedures to begin with.

Sadly, this issue is so “politically correct” that it is difficult to get knowledgeable people to speak out. Robert V. Tauxe, MD, chief of the foodborne and diarrheal disease branch of the Center for Disease Control, was quoted in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association: “Experts say that increased consumption of organically grown, unprocessed foods…may be contributing to the problem.”

Unfortunately, those who make the most mild and unobjectionable of observations in this subject are so vilified that most decide to be quiet. Dr. Tauxe has since refrained from comment on the subject and now claims he has no opinion about the relative dangers of conventional and organically produced foods.

But the produce industry cannot stay quiet. Every time someone gets sick from organically grown lettuce, it is another news article disparaging lettuce. And who can say how many consumers have shied away, or will shy away in the future, from all lettuce because of news articles like this?

As it happens, the solution is very clear: all compost used in agriculture must come from a certified source. Farmers could have their own facilities certified or purchase compost from an outside-certified facility. Whichever, the organic community must withhold organic certification from anyone not following this procedure.

This will not happen easily. But it is important, and pressure must be brought to bear. Supermarkets must establish that their buying offices will not recognize an organic certification without this requirement as a legitimate prospect for purchase. This means trade associations need to begin an education process. If the organic community won’t cooperate, legislative action will have to be pursued to regulate the use of animal wastes in food production.

This industry has worked hard to maintain and enhance a wholesome, healthy image. It must take preemptive action to stop a terribly dangerous practice in the organic community that could hurt innocent people and sully the consumers’ image of fresh produce in the process.  pb