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Organic food trend increases pathogen risk

06-Mar-2002

A trend away from pesticides and towards organic production could be placing our health at risk, claim food scientists in the US this week. The claim that fruit and vegetables grown on manure could be harbouring unseen pathogens that could make the consumer extremely ill, reports Nando.com.

Scientists attending an Institute of Food Technologists meeting in Atlanta this week said that the trends away from artificial fertilisers and back to organic farming, and using manure to grow fruits and vegetables, could pose a danger. Pathogens such as E. coli, Shigella and Salmonella that grow in the stomachs of animals can be transferred to leafy greens, strawberries and root vegetables.

Michael Doyle, director of the centre for food safety at the University of Georgia, said tests found that from 1.2 per cent to 4.4 per cent of produce tested positive for salmonella or shigella, which is picked up from the soil, transferred from manure used to fertilise plants, or transferred to the produce from water used in processing.

"We know that produce can contain harmful pathogens," he said.

Doyle and other scientists are worried that the trend towards organic farming and greater use of manure could result in more outbreaks of food diseases. He said that consumers must take as much care in handling fresh fruits and vegetables as they do with raw meats.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington food safety interest group, said contaminated produce - including sprouts, lettuce, berries and cantaloupe - was responsible for 148 outbreaks of food poisoning in the United States between 1990 and 2001, with 10,504 people made ill.

Paul Mead of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said some food poisoning outbreaks caused by produce aren't being detected when they occur.

Mead said a computer analysis uncovered a previously undetected 1999 outbreak of salmonella poisoning that researchers were able to trace back to mangoes imported from Brazil. Mead said the outbreak was only revealed after investigators searched for the reasons for an unusual spike in reported salmonella cases, and salmonella-contaminated toads were found living in the water the Brazilian farm used to wash the mangoes.

According to the story, US livestock produce1.3 billion tons of manure a year. Environmentalists have long sought to encourage a return to organic gardening as a way of reducing the stockpile.

Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, a group representing organic farmers and processors, said proper handling of manure can reduce pathogens.

"Organic farming has addressed all those things in regulations," she said.DiMatteo said modern organic farms actually use less manure than traditional farms because they rely on crop rotation, the planting of cover crops, and using composted material to replace artificial fertilisers.

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