The organic hepatitis outbreak: We need organic field testing

Today’s organic consumer is well informed. They have made the connection between quality of life and their own personal responsibility as for how it’s going to play out for them. They understand the risks – the effects of hormones, GMOs, antibiotic, and pesticides – and that’s why they are buying organic.
--Christine Bushway, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association
Naturally Savvy, August 2012

How safe are organic foods, especially when compared to conventionally grown varieties? Not as safe as many assume.

A recall has just been announced for certified-organic berries sold at Costco. According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 79 people in eight states have contracted hepatitis A, a debilitating disease that can last for weeks or months, and even be deadly, after eating Townsend Farms frozen berries bought at the box store retailer. The specific item in the crosshairs—Organic Antioxidant Blend Frozen Berry and Pomegranate Mix—was apparently purchased in April.

The CDC says Costco removed the item from its shelves and Townsend Farms voluntarily recalled the item. But what about those who certify organic food? What’s their response?

Rather than test organic crops in the field for lethal pathogens resulting from improperly composted manure, authorities in the United States and Canada say they will continue to rely on paperwork to prove the safety of these niche products.

Organic activists like Christine Bushway (quoted at the top of this article) are perfectly fine with this, not stopping to consider that it’s actually untested certified-organic foods—not thoroughly tested genetically-modified (GM) varieties—that pose an everyday potential threat to the public.

You heard right. Certified organic crops are not tested. They’re not tested to ensure that prohibited substances like synthetic pesticides are avoided; nor to ensure that feces are kept out of the organic food chain. The system is based on good-faith compliance (record-keeping and record-checking) and a hope that nothing untoward happens. And it’s this complete lack of scientific rigor which led to the current Townsend fiasco.

Many assume that “certified” organic means organic crops are being tested. After all, that is what that term means when light bulbs are certified to 100 Watts or motor oil is certified to 10W30. But that’s not what it means in the organic industry.

In response to this current scandal, supporters of the status quo in the American organic industry are attempting to put as much distance as they can between organic certification and food safety, as if to imply that these are two totally separate considerations.

“We don’t see that organic standards necessarily overlap with food safety standards,” said organic program manager Brenda Book with the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). “One thing organic-certification should not be confused with… is a food safety standard.”

Book sits in a chair that was once occupied by none other than Miles V. McEvoy, the current Deputy Administrator of the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP). Back when he held Book’s position with the WSDA, McEvoy was, to his credit, one of the few people in America doing any organic field testing. And he brought this commitment to science with him when he moved to the USDA in Washington DC in 2008. He decided to try something unprecedented at the national level: to begin unannounced field testing to ensure prohibited substances and excluded methods were not being used on organic farms, as per USDA NOP §205.670. It was something the Consumers Union (the policy division of Consumer Reports) had called for more than a decade earlier.

Sadly, as with many good ideas brought to Capitol Hill, it took an inordinately long time for McEvoy to get others to act on his promise. The final program was eventually watered down to include only a small fraction (5 percent) of the more than $33-billion-worth of organic crops the USDA certifies every year, with little, and likely no testing of foreign organic crops, like the one’s implicated in the current hepatitis outbreak scandal, and which provide the majority of the organic food the USDA certifies for sale in America every year.

And yet, in response to this organic hepatitis outbreak, apologists like Book still maintain that “organic certifiers are concerned with the prohibited materials side of contamination over the microbial variety,” as if to imply that McEvoy’s efforts to make organic certification more scientific apply only if someone cheats by using prohibited pesticides. Certainly consumers expect the USDA to clamp down on prohibited use of pesticides when they pay hefty premiums for organic food. But shouldn’t they also expect their organic food to be scientifically verified fecal-pathogen free?

The irony is palpable. Organic activists, registered with the Internal Revenue Service as non-governmental organizations or foundations, spend millions of tax-free dollars on anti-GM propaganda and ballot initiatives for questionable labeling laws even though “over 25 years of research has failed to find any harm from GM technology.” Even the United Nations World Health Organization has declare that GM crops and food are perfectly safe. And yet, these very same anti-GM organic activists fail to see the immediate and very real threat right before them posed by untested “organic” food, which could be contaminated with natural bacteria. They want all GM crops to be tested according to a misinterpretation of the “precautionary principle,” but are not willing to test organic crops.

The issue boils down to whether or not pathogenic microbes – which can give rise to diseases like hepatitis, E. coli and listeriosis (to name but a few), which commonly result from improperly-composted manure (or from improper hand washing, as the case may be) – qualify as prohibited materials in organic production. People like Book seem to be determining that this is not her responsibility. Let’s look at the section of the USDA NOP where proper manure management is outlined.

Section §205.203 is where we’ll find the USDA’s “Soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard.” Subsection (c) stipulates that “The producer must manage plant and animal materials…in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops [or] soil.” Subsection (c) (1) says manure must be composted (emphasis added). And finally there are subsections (c) (2) (ii) and (iii), where proper composting protocols (temperature and duration) are outlined in detail. Clearly, any failure to comply with §205.203 means an excluded method is being used, which could quite easily result in a prohibited substance – i.e. feces – making its way into the organic food chain.

Pretty straightforward. Right? But not according to Book or most others in charge of this multibillion dollar business. Why does the failure to keep such prohibited materials as raw manure out of an organic crop through improper composting not qualify as an excluded method in organic production?

As a former organic farmer and USDA contract inspector, I believe that USDA organic-certification is, and always has been, a food safety standard. It’s just that no one has ever enforced §205.203 through unannounced inspections and field testing as the USDA NOP requires. Not surprising given that everyone involved in the organic industry has been busy attacking GM crops, along with all other forms of science-based advancement in agriculture, instead of working to improve upon how organic food is kept genuine and safe. The powers-that-be in the organic industry have had the proverbial blinders on for the last twenty odd years, never missing an opportunity to scare consumers with unproven theories about the dangers of modern agriculture, all the while failing to recognize organic’s shortcomings.

Anyone can see that testing is in order here, and that any food that fails that test should not be certified as organic. I’ve been saying this since I became an organic inspector in 1998, and I have a standing offer to debate this issue anywhere, anytime with anyone from the organic industry. But, sadly, those opposed to across-the-board organic field testing have chosen instead to continue the full-frontal assault against science and technology, and to malign anyone who believes organics should be modernized.

Organic activists believe it’s perfectly acceptable to make use of the very latest in science and technology when it comes to all other aspects of their lives, whether it’s communications (smart phones and the internet), transportation (hybrid automobiles and high-speed trains), or energy production (solar panels and wind mills). But food production is the exception for some strange reason, and they actually believe farming needs to go backwards in order to move forwards. And the result, tragically, is outbreaks like this one.

A remarkably similar case occurred in Germany three years ago when 44 people died and over 3,700 fell ill after eating E. coli-contaminated certified-organic bean sprouts. Hundreds of the survivors will require kidney dialysis for the rest of their lives. The source of that contamination was never definitively determined, although a nearby cattle operation was suspected of contaminating the water used to sprout the organic beans. This begs the question: What measures were being taken to ensure the water used in this organic sprouting operation was safe? Was there any testing?

Food scares can often drag on for weeks, even months, and are rarely if ever solved satisfactorily. All consumers can hope for is that authorities learn from such disasters so that they might be prevented in the future. As the old saying goes: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The incubation period for hepatitis A is between two and six weeks. This means we’re still in the early stages of this outbreak caused by certified-organic berries. Many more cases could very well result, and lawsuits are already being filed. And yet, authorities remain silent on the most obvious preventive solution: start testing organic crops for fecal contamination.

Even the lawyers representing the victims in this still-unfolding tragedy appear oblivious to the broader implications and obvious possible solution: organic field testing. Instead they are electing to sue small companies like Townsend Farms in Oregon which sourced some of the ingredients for its frozen berry mix in good faith from Turkey, and supplied the finished product to Costco, all under the supposedly watchful eye of the USDA NOP. We can assume that all the paperwork was in order throughout these transactions or none of the ingredients in this organic berry mix would even have made it to market. The problem is that the USDA didn’t bother doing any field testing. Until pressure is brought to bear on the USDA NOP for failing to uphold its own rules on preventing the contamination of organic crops with pathogens, this problem will occur again, and again, and again.

Keep in mind that for all its bluster, the organic industry in America still comprises just roughly 1 percent of total food consumption. What will happen when it reaches 2 or 4 percent? Shouldn’t the USDA be held to account and be forced to get things sorted out scientifically right now before total organic sales in America grow any further?

Defenders of the certified-organic status quo categorically reject the idea of routinely testing organic crops in the field, claiming it will make organic food too expensive. Ironically, when conventional growers make the same argument to explain one reason why they oppose mandatory labeling for GM foods, organic advocates are first in line to ridicule them for putting industry profits ahead of food safety. The difference is that there are no proven safety issues involving GM foods, but quite serious ones, as this incident shows, involving organic foods.

And yet, in spite of the preponderance of evidence as to which of these two competing agriculture philosophies needs more scrutiny, the USDA is planning to test only a mere 5 percent of the domestic organic crops they certify every year, completely ignoring the lion’s-share of the organic crops they certify on paper every year in far-off foreign lands like Turkey, along with China, Mexico and Brazil.

Even within the context of the organic industry itself, the cost argument looks bogus under close examination. The cost of the current paper-based organic-certification system is at least $1,000-a-year per farm. A full-spectrum herbicide residue analysis meanwhile costs about $100, and the cost of a “Total Fecal Coliform” test is just $20.

It would appear that the real reason organic leaders resist across-the-board organic field testing is because it will undermine the persuasiveness of their leading marketing ploy: to deride GM foods and other forms of advanced agricultural technology which are constantly being tested and have consistently proven to be completely safe.

As long as activists can stave off the commonsense requirement of testing organic crops, they can continue to freely ride a wave of ignorance in the marketplace, capitalizing on the average consumer’s assumption that anything natural must be better, even in cases where it can be lethal.

In fact, if the organic industry in its current state was held to the same rigorous scientific standards that the rest of the agricultural sector is held to, consumers might very well come to realize the proven connection between quality of life and the very technologies that organic activists reject, like GM crops, antibiotics, and pesticides. And then, well… they’d have to find something else to gripe about

Mischa Popoff is a former organic farmer and USDA Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector. He’s the author of Is it Organic?, a Policy Advisor for The Heartland Institute and Research Associate for The Frontier Centre for Public Policy.



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