Mercury Food and Wine articles No.10

By Rob Symons, 29 June 2011

Is Organic safe?

Early this month an outbreak of food poisoning in Germany hit the headlines. The infectious agent in this case was the bacterium, Escherichia coli (e.coli), allegedly transmitted through fresh produce. This case is especially interesting as it highlights several issues pertaining to food safety and farming methods. The case also illustrates how irresponsible and malicious cherry picking of the pertinent facts can devastate the livelihoods of thousands of innocent farmers.

The German authorities first blamed cucumbers from Spain as the source of the infection. This assertion was subsequently withdrawn as no evidence could be found to support it. However as a result Russia banned all imports of European fresh produce and the European public avoided Spanish produce.

The source was finally linked to bean sprouts produced in Germany itself. What has been seized upon was the fact that the sprout farm was organic.

Certain commentators have used this incident to assert that organic produce is unsafe compared to conventional produce. This is a myth first propagated by American corporate farming propagandist Dennis Avery, in his pamphlet “Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic”. The claim is that organic farmers use manure to fertilise the soil and therefore contaminate the produce. This is incorrect for a number of reasons.

It is not good organic practice to use raw manure directly in the soil. In fact it is expressly forbidden by organic certification rules. Any manure has to be fully composted preferably together with plant material. This process works aerobically and can reach temperatures of over 70C. It is allowed to compost for over two months and results in a healthy humus.

Organic farmers are not allowed to source manure from factory farms or industrial feedlots. This is both for ethical and health reasons. These intensive overcrowded operations are ideal breeding grounds for the virulent strains of e.coli such as that responsible for the German outbreak. Conventional farms are more likely to use raw manure as there are no regulations to prevent this. The factory farms have to dispose of the enormous quantity of manure and the easiest way to dispose of it is to spread it on fields and pastures.

A study conducted by the University of Minnesota in 2004 concluded that it was no more likely for organic produce to be contaminated than conventional produce. In fact recall data from the US Food and Drug Administration show that in the past two and a half years there have been ten instances of contaminated sprouts of which nine were from conventional operations.

Organic regulations strictly control water quality and worker hygiene, which are the other vectors for e.coli contamination. South Africa has a particular problem with water quality. Most irrigation water is sourced from rivers, farm dams and boreholes, all of which can be contaminated by sewage, farm manure and chemicals. If an organic farms water source is tested positive for any of these contaminants it cannot be certified. Certification also ensures that no harmful chemical contaminants such as pesticides and fungicides are present on produce.

Organic farming is not easy and organic farmers are committed to the organic ethos. We are not only earning a living but are living out our ideals. Certification adds another layer of protection for the consumer. Conventional farms do not have this same level of protection.

Certified organic produce is probably the safest choice for consumers.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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