The outbreak of a deadly strain of E. coli in Germany has made nearly 4,000 people ill, killing 48. The strain was traced to organic bean sprouts. What could have been done to prevent this outbreak? In an op/ed in The New Scientist, Dominic Dyer, head of Britain's Crop Protection Association suggests: Food irradiation. From the op/ed:
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 2 per cent of the total agricultural land. ...
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. ...
One area where organic production systems might pose a higher health risk is through the use of untreated manure as fertiliser. Studies carried out on organic and conventional produce by Minnesota farmers in 2004 found that E. coli contamination was 19 times greater on organic farms which used manure or compost less than 12 months old than on farms which used older materials.
Although the risks are reduced as manure matures, researchers have found that many pathogenic organisms such as E. coli and salmonella can easily survive up to 60 days or more in compost and in the soil, depending on temperature and the condition of the soil.
Another extra risk factor in organic production is the avoidance of fungicides, which can lead to the growth of moulds and increased risk of mycotoxins such as aflatoxin and ergot in crops.
Taking these risks into account, and with recent events in Germany in mind, I think organic food producers need to focus on risk management. More research should also be done into pathogen survival in the food chain.
I also believe that the organic industry must put aside its suspicion and mistrust of science in food production and look at how it can introduce new systems that reduce the risk of future outbreaks of deadly food-borne diseases such as E. coli.
The real tragedy of the E. coli incident in Germany is that the outbreak could have been prevented if the organic industry had been willing to irradiate their produce. The bean sprout crop that was the source of the outbreak requires a warm and humid environment to grow, which increases the risk of contamination by E. coli and other disease-causing bacteria. The only certain means of reducing this risk is to irradiate the bean sprout seeds, which effectively kills 99.999 per cent of E. coli. There is no evidence that food irradiation is harmful to consumers, and also no evidence that it affects the nutritional quality of food.
The whole op/ed is well worth reading. Let's hope that the organic food community heeds it.