Does organic food have higher incidences of foodborne pathogens?
That’s exactly the question that some scientists from the CDC tried to determine. In a recently published study in the Journal of Food Protection, researchers reviewed reported cases of outbreaks of food-related illnesses from 1992 through 2014. Using reports from the CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System, they found there were 18 outbreaks caused by organic food, which were linked to almost 800 illnesses and 250 hospitalizations. More than half of the outbreaks occurred from 2010 through 2014, which researchers attributed to the growing number of people purchasing organic produce.
Unfortunately, the data was particularly limited because when outbreaks occur, production methods for the food is not always gathered or contained in the report. That means the numbers for organic outbreaks were likely higher. In situations where government investigators are trying to figure out the source of an outbreak, production methods are, understandably, not usually the first concern. Nor is the information required in the report. Therefore, researchers were unable to pinpoint the relative risk of foodborne pathogens in organic versus conventional food.
But forget about the relative risk of organic versus conventional food for outbreaks – that’s hardly the teachable moment here.
So many people purchase organic food because they are convinced it is somehow safer for their families. Most of this comes from the erroneous conclusion that organic agriculture does not use pesticides. However, some people also believe that organic food is just safer period, including for the potential risk of foodborne pathogens. As this report reveals, that is a false assumption. Organic food is just as much at risk as conventionally grown produce.
The researchers offered some advice: “consumers should not assume organic foods to be more or less safe than foods produced by conventional methods. Proper handling, preparation, and storage of foods, regardless of production method, are necessary to prevent foodborne illness.”
So, if you’re trying to decide whether you need to purchase organic produce out of food safety concerns, the reality is that you don’t need to do so. Purchase whatever produce looks good and fits within your budget, just use good handling practices.