30 Jun 11 Organics needs to ditch its mistrust of science
Organic farming must ditch its irrational mistrust of science or risk losing its reputation as being safer and healthier – that’s the word of a man who has worked closely with the organic industry in the UK, Dominic Dyer, writing in New Scientist in the wake of the deadly E coli outbreak in Germany that has been attributed to organically-grown sprouts.
I WORKED closely with the organic industry for almost a decade, first as head of the UK Food and Drink Federation’s Organic Food Manufacturers Group and then as a representative on the UK government’s Organic Action Plan Committee. I believe that the growth in the organic food sector has brought many benefits to farmers, food producers and consumers around the world.
The market for organic food has developed rapidly over the past 20 years as more consumers have become willing to pay a premium for products they consider to be both healthier and better for the environment. Although the recent economic downturn has led to a significant reduction in organic food sales, there are now over 170 000 organic farms in Europe, covering almost two percent of the total agricultural land.
The organic industry can be proud of its achievements in putting animal welfare, environmental protection, traceability and food quality at the heart of the farming and food agenda.
However, in recent years I have become increasingly concerned by the willingness of the organic industry to market its products as both a healthier and safer alternative to conventional food production. They are not. In fact, by shunning science, organic producers could be increasing consumers’ risk of contracting Escherichia coli and other food-borne diseases.
The recent fatal E coli outbreak centred on Germany has focused attention on the validity of the claims that organic food is healthier and safer. The outbreak has been traced to bean sprouts grown on an organic farm in Bienenbüttel, northern Germany. As New Scientist went to press, 35 people had died in the outbreak and thousands more were made ill. As a result, concern is growing over standards of microbiological food safety in organic farming.
So are we at higher risk of E coli and other food-borne diseases from organic food and, if so, what can producers do to reduce this risk and restore confidence in the organic brand?
There have been very few scientific studies comparing the microbiological safety of organic and conventional food production systems. In theory, organic food could be more prone to microbial contamination due to the absence of preservatives and the use of manure as fertiliser. However, where studies have been carried out, the results have not been conclusive. This is due to a number of factors, including a small sample size and a failure to factor in seasonal and regional variations.
What is clear is that both organic and conventional foods are susceptible to contamination by pathogenic microorganisms at every point in the food chain. It can occur during production, from manure and water, during processing from environmental sources and during the final handling and packing, possibly as a result of poor human sanitation…..