Despite Wholesome Image, Organic & Local Foods Get Contaminated, Too

Amid worries about pesticides, artificial hormones and meat ground from animals that come from who knows where, “organic” and “locally grown” are labels that comfort many food shoppers. But much of that confidence is unjustified.

Several stories — from a series on food safety by journalism students from the News21 program — point out that organic fruits and vegetables, as well as food produced and sold locally, are no less vulnerable to contamination that can cause foodborne illnesses.

One article points out that organics, like conventionally farmed foods, can harbor dangerous pathogens including E. coli and salmonella. It cited a 2006 study published in the Journal of Food Science that found no significant difference in the prevalence of E. coli between organic and conventional produce. Likewise, the story cited a 2009 Kansas State University study that found no difference in E. coli levels between organically and conventionally raised cattle.

In fact, sprouts from an organic farm in Illinois were linked to a salmonella outbreak last winter that infected at least 140 people in 26 states and the District of Columbia.

Federal standards for organics do not directly address food safety, and an analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year found that organic and conventional foods are nutritionally comparable.

“We don’t purport that organic is healthier than conventional food,” said Soo Kim of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At the same time, food sold by small, local farms can elude federal scrutiny. Another story in the series notes that lobbyists for small farms coaxed Congress to exempt them from the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law in January. Yet there is no conclusive scientific evidence that food from small farms is less likely to make people sick than products from large factory farms.

And a story on farmers markets reports that while state and local governments have jurisdiction over the markets, most are allowed to set their own rules.

ROBERT T. NELSON

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