Organic Is a Production Claim, Not a Sign of Safety

For many shoppers the word “organic” is synonymous with “safe.” But food safety experts cannot concede that organic is safer than conventional food, as their research shows it is not. Dialogue on the confusion between fact and myth highlighted the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo being held here through Friday.

Surveys show that about 60 percent of consumers stress that it’s important to clarify that the organic label is a production claim, not a food safety claim.

“Consumers may see organic food safety relating to safety from chemicals used in conventional foods. But it’s important to clarify that organic claims do no refer to microbial safety,” said Harshavardhan Thippareddi, Ph.D., a food science professor at the University of Nebraska.

While guidelines were adopted in an attempt to keep organic foods free from man-made chemicals, organic products may be just as likely to harbor harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and Campylobacter.

In a study comparing levels of Salmonella found in samples taken from free-range organic chickens with hens raised under traditional commercial conditions, USDA research found that contamination levels of organic chickens were equal to those raised conventionally. The problem is fecal contamination from wild and domestic animals on the organic farm and field.

“This is particularly a problem on smaller organic farms, which don’t have the closure of larger farms,” said Trevor Suslow, a researcher at the University of California at Davis’. Another window for possible contamination is irrigation water used by farms.

“Some growers. . .use water that is questionable or even known to be contaminated,” said Suslow, “This is not uncommon for small farms in general, but it is especially a problem with organic farms.”

Rigorous washing techniques can eliminate some, but not all, contamination, say researchers. They call for more aggressive study of how various methods used to control bacteria in traditional animal processing operations can be adapted to the organic food production systems.

The demand for organic foods in the United States is steady, with growth of the industry at 20 percent annually and organic foods now accounting for about $10 billion in sales.

“There are a lot of good reasons to buy organic,” said Bailey. “But this research confirms other data that free range are no better than conventional chicken, microbiologically.”

The Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo is the world’s largest annual food science and ingredient conference, delivering comprehensive, cutting-edge research and opinion from food science-, technology-, marketing- and business-leaders. Now in it’s 64th year, the IFT Annual Meeting and Food Expo attracts up to 20,000 attendees and 1,000 exhibiting companies.

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