Organics and E. Coli

In the wake of the E. coli debacle, is organic spinach safe to eat?

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The big news this fall is spinach, salad mixes and E. coli. Retailers of organic products will need to be able to address this issue. In order to do so, staff must know about the sources of the contamination, what protective measures they need to take, and what practices are used on organic farms and in handling facilities to prevent E. coli O157:H7 from contacting organic foods.

There is good news that everyone needs to know: Organic food has not been linked to this outbreak. Many organic companies, however, reacted by stopping sales and recalling product. This was done to prevent problems, not because a problem had been found with organic farms or organic products.

I am sure that consumers have been asking the readers of Cooperative Grocer questions about the safety of organic greens. E. coli is not something to take a chance on. It can kill you.

What can retailers and consumers do to prevent exposure to E. coli? Know the possible sources of contamination. The FDA has a lot of information (see contact details at the end of this story).

Past cases have been related to undercooked or ground beef, alfalfa sprouts, unpasteurized fruit juices, dry-cured salami, lettuce, game meat, cheese curds, and raw milk. Young ­children and the elderly seem to suffer worse from exposure.

E. coli O157:H7 is more likely to contaminate fresh produce via exposure to raw or improperly composted manure, irrigation water that contains untreated sewage (sewage sludge is prohibited in organic production), or contaminated wash water. Chlorinated water might reduce the amount of pathogens and other microorganisms on fresh produce but cannot eliminate them. The best methods for reducing the risks of E. coli on produce is to prevent and control potential contamination through proper methods of production, harvest, handling and distribution.

E. coli is all around us, just maybe not the lethal type. According to the Center for Disease Control, O157:H7, the strain involved in the current outbreak, was first recognized as a cause of illness in 1982. That strain causes an estimated 73,000 cases of infection, including 61 deaths, each year in the United States, according to the CDC. Cooked, canned and frozen spinach will not be a danger. Raw spinach and greens may be. But organic foods have the strictest manure-use requirements for such production.

Organic certification protects from E. coli contamination
It is important to know that organic farms are strictly regulated with regard to their use of manure and compost. Conventional farms are not. All fertilizers used on organic farms are scrutinized by certifiers. Accredited certifying agents are required to ensure that their clients comply with the regulations.

The regulations define and regulate the use of manure and compost. Under CFR 205, the “National Organic Rule,” we find the following:
Compost. The product of a managed process through which microorganisms break down plant and animal materials into more available forms suitable for application to the soil. Compost must be produced through a process that combines plant and animal materials with an initial C:N ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1. Producers using an in-vessel or static aerated pile system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131EF and 170EF for three days. Producers using a windrow system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131E F and 170E F for 15 days, during which time, the materials must be turned a minimum of five times.

Manure. Feces, urine, other excrement, and bedding produced by livestock that has not been composted.

205.203 Soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard.

(a) The producer must select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion.

(b) The producer must manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal ­materials.

(c ) The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances. Animal and plant materials include:

(1) Raw animal manure, which must be composted unless it is:

(i) Applied to land used for a crop not intended for human consumption;

(ii) Incorporated into the soil not less than 120 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion has direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles; or

(iii) Incorporated into the soil not less than 90 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles;

(2) Composted plant and animal materials produced though a process that

(i) established an initial C:N ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1; and

(ii) maintained a temperature of between 131 F and 170 F for 3 days using an in-vessel or static aerated pile system; or

(iii) maintained a temperature of between 131F and 170F for 15 days using a windrow composting system, during which period, the materials must be turned a minimum of five times.

(3) Uncomposted plant materials.

The language of the regulation is based on the EPA definition of the term “compost.” It was done this way as a food safety measure to prevent E. coli.

Organic certifiers are required to document that their clients follow these regulations. It’s a lot of record keeping, especially for small farmers who want to make their own compost as well as for those who make and sell compost to organic farmers. The USDA expects certifiers to monitor this.

As a certifier who is audited by USDA at least once a year, I can assure you that they look at these records. One of our smallest certified operations was making compost—and their records were excellent. But their inspection report did not reflect enough detail and we were required to provide more information. All worked out well but it did reflect on the thoroughness of the audit.

Where did the tainted food come from? Again, no organic operations have been linked to this outbreak. Recalls were done to protect against further damage while the details came in.

In the last decade, according to the FDA, this is the 20th food-poisoning outbreak related to spinach or lettuce. Eight of those 20 have been traced to produce from the Salinas Valley.

On October 2, 2006, the FDA announced that: …all spinach implicated in the current outbreak has traced back to Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista, California. This determination is based on epidemiological and laboratory evidence obtained by multiple states and coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Natural Selection Foods issued a recall of all implicated products on September 15, 2006. Four other companies have issued secondary recalls because they received the recalled product from Natural Selections.

Natural Selection Foods did recall all spinach products under multiple brand names with a date code of October 1 or earlier. Four other companies recalled product because they received Natural Selection Foods spinach.

Natural Selections, a San Juan Bautista plant that processes conventional products, also handles organic product certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).

After the spinach problem there was concern about contamination in organic raw milk. The California Department of Food and Agriculture quarantined raw milk products from Organic Pastures in Fresno, California, after three cases of E.coli illness supposedly were caused by raw milk. Tests for E. coli were, again, negative, yet Organic Pastures was still forbidden to sell any product by the Fresno County health officials except for making cheese.

Response from organic community
Impressively, organic companies responded to and recalled millions of dollars worth of product in order to protect consumers and made sure to inform the public of their concerns.

Organic Valley stated: “On behalf of the 800 farmer-members of Organic Valley Family of Farms/CROPP Cooperative, we are alarmed and very sad to hear the news about the illness and deaths caused by recent E. coli O157:H7 contamination found in fresh spinach. Although Organic Valley does not currently market a spinach product at this time, we recognize the great importance of food safety and take every precaution to assure that only the safest…products are behind the Organic Valley and Organic Prairie labels.”

“As the founder of Organic Valley testing protocols, we have been very conscious of our obligations to the public. Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative has instituted quality programs above and beyond the federal and state recommendations,” remarks Louise Hemstead, Organic Valley’s Chief Operating Officer. “Organic Valley’s scrupulous testing protocols include analysis for E. coli as well as other pathogenic bacteria.”

Goodness Greeness warned consumers of the dangers on their website, stating they would “suspend sales and shipments of all bagged items containing spinach until we have further information and guidance from the FDA.”

California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) has very good information on their website at www.ccof.org.

FDA’s response website also offers information at (888) 463-6332 or www.fda.gov. They state that they “…will be holding a public meeting to address the larger issue of food borne illness linked to leafy greens later in the year once the current investigation is ­complete.”

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Cissy Bowman is an organic certifier and manages Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, a nonprofit organization (317-539-4317 or [email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #127 November - December - 2006