January 17, 2021

Organic Foods Not Always Safer

If you want to eat food that hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides, buy organic. In fact, certified organic foods are regulated by the USDA and grown under strict guidelines. Synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, and genetic engineering are forbidden. Certification is a long-term commitment that may take years to achieve, since one of the qualifications is that the field has to be free from pesticides for three years preceding planting.

Cows, chickens, and pigs raised organically are not fed antibiotics as a matter of course and don’t eat feed that has been grown with any ‘cide. Testing done on foods has prompted the Environmental Working Group to create a list called “The Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15”. The “Dirty Dozen” list includes produce that is generally high in pesticide and herbicide residue, while the “Clean 15” foods have little residue.

But, does that mean these foods are free from foodborne illness-causing bacteria? No. There have been 20 recalls of organic products for adulteration and contamination in the past two years, including Andrew Williamson Fresh Produce organic grape tomatoes for Salmonella and Starwest Botanicals Organic Celery Seed for Salmonella contamination. And the USDA recalled 34,000 pounds of organic beef in December 2010 for E. coli contamination.

So why do these recalls happen even with organic foods? First of all, bacteria are everywhere, even on organic farms. Secondly, many small growers are exempted from food safety regulations, since some people don’t like government intervention, even when it saves lives. The Food Safety Modernization Act, in fact, has a provision that exempts small farms that sell within a fixed distance of their location. And larger operations obviously feed more people, so there is a cost-benefit to focusing on well-known and large producers and processors.

Proponents of no regulations say that the smaller farms may be more careful about how they grow and produce food simply because they usually sell only to local customers. And certified organic farms are already inspected, so if unsafe practices are used to produce food, the inspector should see it and report it.

But Caroline Smith DeWaal, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has said, “Labels like organic or local don’t translate into necessarily safe products.”

The Organic Trade Association asserts that a recall of foodborne illness outbreak’s effect on a company’s bottom line is one of the best checks on food safety, which is not a proactive stance.

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