Wash. Times Uses E. Coli Outbreak In Germany To Spread Fear About Organic Food

››› ››› HARDEEP DHILLON

The Washington Times used the recent deaths in Germany resulting from people eating produce contaminated by E. coli bacteria to claim that organic food is dangerous. In fact, not only does the article lack data to support the claim but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it has no data to support the claim that organic food is more susceptible to food-borne pathogens than conventional produce.

Wash. Times Claims Organic Farms Engage In "Potentially Deadly Practices"

Washington Times Deputy Editorial Page Editor: "Dead Bodies Demand Organic Food Moratorium." An op-ed by Washington Times deputy editorial page editor David Mastio following the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany stated: "[I]t is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to organic farms' potentially deadly practices." The op-ed was identified as  "a less-than-serious look at how old technology could kill us."* Noting that the E. Coli outbreak is perhaps linked to an organic farm, Mastio further wrote: "[T]he Obama administration needs to impose a timeout in the expansion or opening of any new organic farms while regulators and federal safety experts examine the ongoing dangers presented by organic food." From The Washington Times:

Right now, someone nearby is buying organic bean sprouts. It may be the last thing he ever does. Last week's E. coli outbreak in Germany -- potentially traced to an organic farm -- was more deadly than the largest nuclear disaster of the last quarter-century.

[...]

The scale of the danger we ignore by pretending organic food isn't a business like every other is nearly unimaginable. According to World Health Organization statistics on E. coli deaths, in just the past two years, more people have been killed by the disease than all fission-related events since the dawn of the nuclear age -- even if you include the use of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The time has come for even the mighty organic lobby to accept the precautionary principle -- the idea that it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to organic farms' potentially deadly practices. Until we know for certain that the outbreak could not have been caused by the suspect organic farm, we must act to protect the public from the unknown risks of organic practices.

First, the Obama administration needs to impose a timeout in the expansion or opening of any new organic farms while regulators and federal safety experts examine the ongoing dangers presented by organic food.

The core of organic farming is the rejection of a century's worth of scientific advances. The same risks that Christian Scientists take with their own children when they reject modern medicine, organic farmers are eager to take with your children when they reject modern agriculture. [The Washington Times, 6/8/11]

FDA Says It Has No Data Showing That Organic Food Has Different Risks Than Other Food

FDA "Has No Data Showing Any Higher Or Lesser Risk For Adulteration With Foodborne Pathogens" For Organic Food Versus Conventionally-Grown Food. In an email to Media Matters, a spokesperson for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stated:

The FDA has no data showing any higher or lesser risk for adulteration with foodborne pathogens for growing product using organic versus conventional farming techniques. [6/10/11, email to Media Matters]

Organic Trade Association: "Organic Products Are [Not] More Likely To Be Contaminated By" E. Coli. In a post published on its website, The Organic Trade Association highlighted a statement by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and a study by the University of Minnesota to show that "there is no evidence to indicate" that organic products are more likely to be contaminated by E. coli. From the Organic Trade Association:

Are organic products more likely to be contaminated by E. coli?

No, there is no evidence to indicate this. All food -- whether conventional or organic -- is susceptible to E. coli. In fact, CDC has issued the following statement: "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention...has not conducted any study that compares or quantitates the specific risk for infection with Escherichia coli O157:H7 and eating either conventionally grown or organic/natural foods. CDC recommends that growers practice safe and hygienic methods for producing food products, and that consumers, likewise, practice food safety within their homes (e.g., thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables)."

A University of Minnesota study concerning fecal E. coli in fresh picked produce by Mukherjee et al, published in the Journal of Food Protection (Vo. 67, No. 5, 2004), found that the percentage of E. coli prevalence in certified organic produce was similar to that in conventional samples. However, it did find a marked difference in the prevalence of E. coli between the samples from certified and non-certified organic farms. "Ours is the first study that suggests a potential association between organic certification and reduced E. coli prevalence," the authors wrote. They noted that the results of the study "do not support allegations that organic produce poses a substantially greater risk of pathogen contamination than does conventional produce." [Organic Trade Association, accessed 6/10/11]

  • University of Minnesota: "E. Coli Prevalence In Certified Organic Produce" Is "Not Statistically Different From That In Conventional Samples." From the University of Minnesota:

The average coliform counts in both organic and conventional produce were 2.9 log most probable number per g. The percentages of E. coli-positive samples in conventional and organic produce were 1.6 and 9.7%, respectively. However, the E. coli prevalence in certified organic produce was 4.3%, a level not statistically different from that in conventional samples. [PubMed.gov, May 2004]

Correction: 

An earlier version of this post did not make clear that Mastio's op-ed was identified as "a less-than-serious look." Media Matters regrets the error. 

Posted In
Environment & Science
Person
Washington Times
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.