Spinach E. coli Contamination: Media Advisory

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The following is to correct misinformation regarding organic farming practices and food safety risks distributed to national media by organic food interest groups in an effort to deflect scrutiny in the wake of the recent and tragic outbreak of virulent E. coli that has killed at least one, hospitalized nearly 20, and sickened 114 individuals in 21 states.

almost threefold higher than that on conventional

The following is to correct misinformation regarding organic farming practices and food safety risks distributed to national media by organic food interest groups in an effort to deflect scrutiny in the wake of the recent and tragic outbreak of virulent E. coli that has killed at least one, hospitalized nearly 20, and sickened 114 individuals in 21 states.

Unless otherwise identified, all discussion points can be attributed to the Center for Global Food Issues’ director of research and education, Alex Avery.

1. Organic farming practices are not safer and may, in fact, be less safe than non-organic farming practices.

-- A University of Minnesota study published in the Journal of Food Protection in 2004 concluded that organic produce was six times more likely to be contaminated with E. coli. Salmonella was found on organic lettuce and organic green peppers, but not on any conventional produce. According to the researchers, the “prevalence of E. coli on certified organic produce” was “almost threefold higher than that on conventional”, but because of the comparatively smaller conventional food sample size, this difference could not be considered “statistically significant”. Yet of the total of 15 farms that had E. coli-positive samples, 13 were organic and only two were conventional. (Mukherjee, A, et al. J of Food Prot 67(5):894-900, 2004)

-- The most frequently contaminated product found in the Minnesota study was organic lettuce, with roughly one quarter of organic lettuce samples contaminated by E. coli. The levels of E. coli on organic lettuce and leafy greens was also higher than found on conventional samples.

-- Importantly, the research determined that fruits and vegetables were 19 times more likely to be contaminated with E. coli if the manure was composted 6 to 12 months compared to produce fertilized with manure aged more than one year. Current organic manure handling regulations allow application of manure that has been composted for as little as three days right up to harvest time.

-- Some have suggested that manure use is “highly regulated” on organic farms but is not regulated on non-organic farms. This is incorrect. Every state has regulations against the use of raw (uncomposted) manure on crops consumed raw. However, all use of manure and manure-based compost by organic and non-organic farmers needs to be reexamined in light of the findings in the Minnesota study and applied to all.

Fortunately, this is essentially the point of “The Lettuce Safety Initiative” that has now been expanded to include spinach. This is a sound policy reaction to this and other E. coli contamination episodes of the past decade, including a multi-state outbreak from organic lettuce that sickened many in Connecticut and Illinois in June of 1996.

2. None of the organic brands from Natural Selections Foods LLC have been cleared of possible contamination by the FDA.

-- While Natural Selections Foods LLC has claimed that “manufacturing codes” from packaging retained by patients are all from non-organic spinach, this is totally inadequate information. The FDA and state authorities have package/UPC codes for a relatively small number of victims identified so far.

-- Why was Natural Selections posting reassuring (and conflicting) messages about the apparent safety of its organic products on its website only three days into a growing foodborne-illness outbreak for which no products had been cleared and the source of the contamination had yet to be identified?

3. Is E. coli O157:H7 a by-product of grain-based feeding or other “industrial” farming practices? No.

-- Studies have found E. coli O157:H7 in every single cattle herd tested by USDA researchers, including cattle raised on open pastures at low densities in remote areas. Genetic evidence indicates the O157:H7 strain arose thousands of years ago. Studies are conflicting as to whether grain-based feed increases the prevalence and shedding of O157:H7 strains of E. coli compared to grass feeding. Some have found higher rates with grass and hay feeding, others with grain.

4. This outbreak is due to practices used in organic farming While some outbreaks in the past have been thought to have occurred due to cross contamination during rinsing, current regulations – if followed – have been designed to address this hazard.

-- Ironically, the Minnesota research indicates that larger, certified operations are considerably less prone to bacterial contamination than smaller, more independent uncertified operations. E. coli contamination rates were roughly twice as high on un-certified organic farms compared to certified farms.

Contact: Alex Avery, Center for Global Food Issues, 540-337-6354 or cell: 540-255-6378

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