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Does the “organic” label mean safer food?

3 min read

Food Retail

Organic devotees might be getting fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but are they also better protected from foodborne illness than those who buy conventional produce?

Science largely is still out on whether organic food is more nutritious, but it’s widely assumed that organic produce is at least safer, especially when it comes to fruit such as berries, which tend to soak up pesticides.

However, chemicals aren’t the only danger, as illustrated by a recall of a frozen berry mix from Oregon’s Townsend Farms. At least 30 people have been hospitalized, and nearly 80 cases of hepatitis A in eight states have been tied to the product, Food Safety News reported. The berry mix, sold at Costco Wholesale and Harris Teeter, contained certified-organic pomegranate seeds from Turkey. The seeds are thought to be the culprit, causing an outbreak of a hepatitis A strain that is rarely found in North America but is seen more often in the Middle East, according to The Associated Press.

A study last year found that while organic food likely comes with fewer pesticides and is clearly better for the environment than conventionally grown fare, consumers shouldn’t assume that the organic label guarantees the food inside is safer overall.

The debate actually goes back several years and tends to resurface when foodborne illness related to organic food crops up, such as a national salmonella outbreak traced to organic peanuts in 2009. As experts told The New York Times at the time, organic might have health benefits, but it doesn’t guarantee the food is any safer from contamination than less-expensive, conventionally raised food. The story says, however, that the additional eyes of a third-party organic certifier might keep contamination to a minimum. In fact, the salmonella outbreak might have been contained earlier if the firm responsible for certifying the processing plant hadn’t waited seven months after finding problems to recommend that the USDA revoke the company’s organic certification, the Times story says.

There’s another angle this time around: The offending pomegranate seeds came from Turkey, and the Townsend mix also contained berries from Chile and Mexico, sparking a discussion about the difference between organic and local. Food raised anywhere in the world can be sold in the U.S. under organic-certification rules implemented in 2002, as long as a third-party certifier affirms that the producer is growing and packaging food according to USDA regulations, Food Safety News reported.

“We can’t question it if another certifier says a place is organic certified,” said Brenda Brook, organic-program manager for the Washington state Department of Agriculture. “The thing that gets confusing from the consumer standpoint is when something’s from Turkey, for example, but it’s certified by a U.S. firm. [The organic-certification program] is really just a chain of custody.”