A study published in the Journal of Food Protection has found that while consumers think that organic foods are “safer” than conventionally grown or produced foods, the standards applied to those products do not directly address microbial or chemical safety issues. Researchers looked at the CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System in this study. They found that there have been 18 food poisoning outbreaks linked to organic foods from 1992 to 2014.
Those outbreaks caused 779 illnesses, 258 hospitalizations and 3 deaths. Moreover, 56% of the outbreaks occurred from 2010 to 2014. Nine of the outbreaks were in a single state, and nine sickened people in more than one state.
Salmonella bacteria caused most of the outbreaks, at 44%, and 33% of the outbreaks were caused by E coli O157:H7. Campylobacter, Clostridium botulinum, and the hepatitis A virus caused one outbreak each.
Eight of the outbreaks were linked to produce, four to unpasteurized dairy products, two to eggs, two to nut and seed products, and two to foods with more than one ingredient. Eighty-three percent of the food poisoning outbreaks were associated with foods that were “definitely or likely” USDA certified.
The production and consumption of organic foods has increased in recent years, so more foodborne outbreaks that are associated with organic foods have been reported. Because public health officials do not collect and record the food production method in outbreak investigations, the study’s authors could not assess risk of outbreaks in organic foods to those due in conventionally produced foods.
The study’s authors concluded by saying that “consumers should not assume organic foods to be more or less safe than foods produced by conventional methods. Proper handling, preparation, and storage of foods, regardless of production method, are necessary to prevent foodborne illness. Foods can be contaminated anywhere along the supply chain from farm to fork. Food safety requires focused attention by consumers, regardless of whether foods are produced organically or conventionally. Consumers should be aware of the risk of milk and produce consumed raw, including organic.” This study was the first step to understanding that there are risks posed by organic food, and how to quantify it, according to the authors.