By Freya Preimsberger
A new study in the Journal of Food Protection found that outbreaks of foodborne disease in the United States are linked to the increased production of organic foods. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) collects data on outbreaks under its Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance Program, which contained information on 18 reported outbreaks allegedly caused by organic foods from 1992 to 2014. The outbreaks resulted in 779 illnesses, 258 hospitalizations and three deaths, with the majority of the outbreaks (56 percent) taking place from 2010 to 2014. Half of the outbreaks were contained in a single state and half were multistate. The vast majority (83 percent) of organic foods associated with outbreaks were definitely or likely certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the bacteria Escherichia coli and Salmonella sp. comprised most (77 percent) of the pathogens responsible for illness. Organic food production standards do not take into account chemical or microbial hazards. The study states that consumers should take the same care in preparing organic and nonorganic foods in order to prevent foodborne illness.
Organic foods have gained traction in the United States and around the world for their reputation of being safer and healthier, although studies have not found evidence to support these claims. Polls conducted by NPR and Thomson Reuters Health Poll found that 58 percent of Americans prefer organic food, primarily due to concerns about toxins in pesticides and the desire to support local farmers. The study notes that increased consumer demand in recent years parallels increased reporting of outbreaks from 2010 to 2014. In the study, produce was responsible for eight of the 18 outbreaks, with unpasteurized dairy products causing four, eggs causing two, nuts and seeds causing another two and multiple-ingredient products causing the remaining two outbreaks. Although E. coli and Salmonella sp. caused most of the reported outbreaks, researchers also found that Campylobacter, Clostridium botulinum and the Hepatitis A virus were each responsible for a single outbreak.
E. coli infections are common in the United States, with an estimated 265,000 cases each year. Infected people begin to exhibit symptoms one to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria, with symptoms such as stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. Generally, infected people recover from their illness within five to seven days, but some cases can be life-threatening. To prevent infections, the CDC recommends that people wash their hands after using the bathroom and before preparing food, thoroughly cook meat, avoid unpasteurized milk and juice, avoid swallowing water while swimming and prevent cross-contamination when preparing food. Salmonella infections cause an estimated 1.2 million infections and 450 deaths in the United States annually. Although infected people generally make a full recovery, they may have abnormal bowel habits for several months. A small number of people infected with Salmonella and Campylobacter develop reactive arthritis, which may go on to become chronic arthritis. Symptoms of Salmonella infection include fever, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Eating contaminated food, which includes produce and animal products, and not washing your hands can cause infections. In order to prevent Salmonella contamination and infection, the CDC recommends cooking all animal products thoroughly and avoiding cross-contamination from surfaces and utensils used to prepare animal products. C. botulinum causes botulism, a rare and serious illness which can lead to paralysis, respiratory failure and death. Infections are mostly due to improper home-canning and food refrigeration. Hepatitis A is typically due to improperly cooked food and food contaminated with feces. The CDC recommends practicing good hygiene, fully cooking food and receiving Hepatitis A vaccinations to prevent infection.
Studies have identified a number of bacterial species present on produce; E. coli has been identified on vegetables, including lettuce, alfalfa sprouts and unpasteurized apple juice and Salmonella sp. has been found on sprouts, apples, tomatoes, cantaloupe and unpasteurized orange and apple juice. Produce may be infected with pathogenic bacteria at any point in their production process, with soil, improperly composted manure and irrigation water among potential sources of contamination. Parasites and bacterial species, including E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter, can infect livestock. Scientists in previous studies found no difference in bacterial contamination between organic and nonorganic produce, livestock and poultry, although nonorganic livestock were contaminated with more antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Although food must follow USDA guidelines in order to be labeled as organic, the CDC does not collect information on food collection methods during outbreaks. This lack of data makes it difficult to determine outbreak risk due to organic food. In order to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, the study recommends that people take steps to avoid infection from foodborne pathogens regardless of whether or not their food is organic. All foods should be properly stored, handled and cooked, especially when eaten by populations at risk for foodborne illness, including children, pregnant women, the elderly and the immunocompromised. The Food and Drug Administration publishes information on food safety practices. It recommends that people wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after handling food, clean kitchen utensils and surfaces between preparing different food items, rinse fruit and vegetables with water and clean cans’ lids before opening. Consumers should not drink raw milk, which has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization heats milk or juice to a high enough temperature for a certain length of time, killing bacteria and potential pathogens. Caution should be taken when eating any kind of raw produce, since rinsing only removes some bacteria. Raw or uncooked animal products should be separated from other foods when grocery shopping and prepared on different food surfaces. The Food and Drug Administration also recommends that meat, seafood, poultry and eggs be cooked to a safe internal temperature with the use of a food thermometer. Liquids such as soups and sauces should be brought to a boil when reheating. People should refrigerate animal products and other perishables within two hours of purchase or cooking. Consumers should never thaw frozen food at room temperature and should instead use a refrigerator, a microwave or cold water, and thawed foods should be cooked immediately. If you have any questions on food safety, you can call 1-888-SAFEFOOD for more information.