The organic hepatitis outbreak: We need organic field testing

| June 17, 2013 |
Many have become sick after eating organic frozen berries. (CREDIT: Flickr/~Bob~West~) Many have become sick after eating organic frozen berries. (CREDIT: Flickr/~Bob~West~)

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.

 

  • RobertWager

    As always Mischa, straight to the the heart of the matter. Cheers

  • http://wildernessvagabonds.com/ Mike Lewinski

    Field testing wouldn’t have prevented this outbreak, would it? The USDA doesn’t have authority in Turkey.

    Given that, it seems like we should be testing all imports of food products at the port of entry.

    • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

      The USDA has authority wherever its good name is used.

      Testing at a port of entry works in some circumstances, but it’s nowhere near as effective as testing in the field. They test Olympic athletes DURING the games, not after they go home.

      If this outbreak resulted from improper hand washing, then field testing would not have helped. But if it resulted from improperly-composted manure – which is far more likely – then field testing would have been the best approach bar none.

      In fact, if field testing couldn’t prevent such tragedies, then we’d have to give up on the whole concept of organic food. Fortunately field testing CAN prevent such tragedies, and authorities should do more of it. A lot more.

      • Rob Wallbridge

        Just last week you claimed on Michael Olson’s radio show that the USDA had no authority to test organic imports, a claim you’ve repeated a number of times in the recent past. Fortunately, Mark Kastel was present to set the record straight on this and a number of other factual errors. Glad to see that you appear to have retained at least that one fact.

        • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

          If you can quote what I said a bit more accurately I’d be happy to explain. I await your response Mr. Wallbridge.

        • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

          Are you there Mr. Wallbridge? I’m still awaiting a response on this.

  • Loren E

    I’ve often marveled at the rather draconian view of the precautionary principle that organic types display (at least as it applies to all other types of agriculture.) Why not the same view with regards to use of properly composted manure? Shouldn’t the growers and retailers be required to display or at least produce a certificate for ALL crops fertilized this way? If not, why not?

    • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

      Well put Loren E! Or, as I like to put it, at least one test, per farm, per year. It’s a tenth the cost of all the paperwork.

  • Rob Wallbridge

    There’s so much illogical reasoning and incorrect information in this post, it’s difficult to know where to even begin. For a discussion of the issue of manure use and food safety, please visit my blog post at http://thefanningmill.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/food-safety-and-manure-use-on-organic-farms/

    It bears emphasizing that if only a small fraction of the farms and livestock in the world are certified organic, the majority of farms and livestock and therefore manure are not organic – how is that risk being managed? This post seems to pretend manure only exists on organic farms.

    So far, despite repeated challenges, no one has been able to offer a shred of actual, empirical evidence that organic food poses a higher risk of microbial contamination than any other food in the marketplace – it’s all speculation, assumption, and fear-mongering.

    This post brings it to new heights (or lows) by attempting to draw completely false parallels between the testing of organic crops for microbial or pesticide contamination and the testing of GM crops before they’re put into the marketplace. Again, there is absolutely no evidence to indicate that GM crops are any less prone to microbial contamination by human pathogens than any other type of food.

    As for food safety testing, organic food is subject to the exactly the same testing protocols as every other food in the marketplace; disease outbreaks in all kinds of food demonstrate that this testing does not catch every single instance of contamination, but no reasonable person believes that every single morsel of food could be tested at every possible point of contamination from field to mouth – that’s why the industry has developed HACCP programs and other tools (very much like the organic certification system, I might add!) Somehow, though, Mr, Popoff and his fans seem to think the organic food system can or should defy this common sense approach with the fantastical belief that a single “field test” would somehow magically detect all instances of contamination.

    We can certainly debate whether current food safety testing protocols and other contamination prevention measures are adequate and effective, but this should take place in the context of the entire food system, with particular emphasis on specific high-risk foods identified by actual epidemiological data, rather than ideologically-driven rants that confuse microbial food safety with pesticide residues and GMOs.

    On that topic, Mr. Popoff has ridden this “let’s test organic crops” hobby horse for many, many years, always seeking to spin the latest hot news topics into arguments in favour of this obsession, with little regard for facts or logic. He started by claiming a test for “all herbicides” would cost $75 (and even had an interest in a company offering the service). Now he uses the $100 figure, but all along he’s failed to provide evidence for this claim. I have on my desk a price list from a accredited lab stating that a broad spectrum herbicide detection test (presence only) costs $500. Insecticide scans start at $250. Organic certification bodies can and do test for residues in cases where fraud is suspected, and as Mr. Popoff himself admits, random testing is now part of the process. And of course, the government includes organic produce in its own residue testing programs, which consistently demonstrate that organic produce has far fewer residues than non-organic produce.

    Once you place Mr. Popoff’s arguments in the context of the food system as a whole, and once you examine the logical and factual basis for his claims, the wheels fall off pretty quickly.

    • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

      With all due respect Mr. Wallbridge, why would anyone read your blog post on manure when we can instead read the USDA’s standard on proper manure management? See for yourself. It’s Section §205.203 “Soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard,” as quoted above in my article.
      As for evidence of the cost of tests, call a lab. There are quite a few of them across the country. Shall I provide you with a list?
      Lastly, I have never had an interest in any lab company. Sorry to disappoint you, but as an independent organic inspector that wouldn’t be a very good idea, now would it?
      Better luck next time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=776968828 Roger Rabbitleg

    This confirms my personal conclusion that the “Certified Organic” specification is weakly written and to open to farmer interpretation and safety risk.

  • Australia

    Organics is full of synthetic chemicals (benzene, nitrates, pesticides, etc) in Australia because of no testing. Profits before people. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-07-18/benzene-synthetics-found-in-organic-farming-products/4139254 is a classic example and the refuse to change and test.

  • Electric Liberty

    If they’re not going to test it, they shouldn’t certify it at all. There is certainly a large market for organic foods. By not certifying it, governments could leave the door open for competing 3rd party private businesses to do so. These could have pretty strict standards, as consumers demand, and they would have to be quite transparent to be credible. A good comparison is how credit reports work.

  • sciencebabe

    I found this article quite compelling…until I got to the end and saw that the author is associated with The Heartland Institute. Now I don’t trust a thing he says.

    • Brendon

      So you were compelled by the arguments, but then your personal biases got in the way? The arguments should be evaluated based on their merrits, not based on your opinion of where the arguments came from.

  • Krowe

    There are MAJOR issues with genetically modified foods. GMO soy and corn cause major allergic reactions in some people. The fact that there is no label on the products means that those of us with allergies to GMO do not know what is safe. Food-born illness can happen to ANY food, regardless of organic or GMO. Even if the food is safely grown in the field, the processing and distribution can cause issues. BTW, humans have been eating “organic” since the hunter/gather civilizations. GMO food is relitively new and we honestly don’t know enough about the long term impact. I am less afraid of “natural orgainisms” than I am of franken-food that no one knows that it will do.

    • Loren E

      ‘GMO soy and corn cause major allergic reactions in some people.’
      Really? Care to cite some data here? What protein in GMO causes this allergenicity? If you can’t name that protein, your statement is bogus. The simple fact is that if you are allergic to soy, corn, wheat, eggs, dairy, nuts or whatever, you’re allergic regardless of whether or not it is GMO.

  • Lucy Owsley-Goodman

    wow where to start, first of all we are talking about a processed food (frozen) so it went through several sets of hands and the pathogen could have come from that.

    second manure and compost use is highly regulated on certified organic farms. on conventional farms it is not and most conventional produce farms use manure, often in the raw state (only allowed on organic farms if applied at least 4 months before the crop is planted (unless a perennial, than 6 months from harvest)

    third no one ever said any Organic food was safe from pathogens any more than conventionally grown food is safe from pathogens (ever notice that food recalls with produce are running about 40 to 1 in favor of conventional produce?)

    fourth, Organic is about certifying the soil and the food that is grown on that soil gets to become Organic. If you use synthetics, you kill off the life in the soil and make it impossible to grow organically (the yields go way down).

    fifth, if Organic produce is to be tested in the field for pathogens why not ALL produce since conventionally grown produce farms usually use raw manures on their fields?

    this is such a false flag argument as such problems are a problem of growing food in the real world and not a problem with organic farm management

  • AlbertaLyle

    What’s the problem? After all, it is certified-organic hepatitus A.

    hepatitis A
    hepatitis A