WASHINGTON (The Blaze/AP) — Buy organic. Support local. Shop small. These are all catch-phrases that have gained momentum because consumers liken these food options with "healthier" and "safer". But if a recent outbreak of salmonella in organic eggs from a Minnesota farm shows us anything, it's that no food is immune to contamination.
The Food and Drug Administration has reported at least 20 recalls due to pathogens in organic food in the last two years, while the Agriculture Department, which oversees meat safety, issued a recall of more than 34,000 pounds of organic beef last December due to possible contamination with E. coli.
The root of the matter with small operations is that they may not have to meet the same safety standards and requirements imposed on their larger counterparts. For example, President Barack Obama signed a food safety bill earlier this year, which exempted some small farms, due to the fact that the cost of food safety plans could cause some small businesses to go bankrupt. The exemption covers farms of a certain size that sell within a limited distance of their operation.
Food safety advocates unsuccessfully lobbied against the provision, as did the organic industry. Christine Bushway of the Organic Trade Association, which represents large and small producers, says food safety comes down to proper operation of a farm or food company, not its scale.
The government has traditionally focused on safety at large food operations — including farms, processing plants, and retailers — because they reach the most people. Recent outbreaks in cantaloupe, ground turkey, eggs and peanuts have started at large farms or plants and sickened thousands of people across the country.
"While it's critical that food processors be regularly inspected, there is no way the FDA would ever have the resources to check every farm in the country, nor are we calling for that," says Erik Olson, a food safety advocate at the Pew Health Group. "Unfortunately, there are regulatory gaps, with some producers being completely exempt from FDA safeguards."
The FDA, which oversees the safety of most of the U.S. food supply, often must focus on companies that have the greatest reach. A sweeping new egg rule enacted last year would require most egg producers to do more testing for pathogens. Though the rule will eventually cover more than 99 percent of the country's egg supply, small farms like Larry Schultz Organic Farm of Owatonna, Minn., would not qualify. That farm issued a recall last week after six cases of salmonella poisoning were linked to the farm's eggs.
Smaller farms do have some food safety advantages. Owners have more control over what they are producing and often do not ship as far, lessening the chances for contamination in transport. If the farm is organic, an inspector will have to visit the property to certify it is organic and may report to authorities if they see food being produced in an unsafe way. Customers may also be familiar with an operation if it is nearby.
So what can a consumer do? Experts say to follow the traditional rules, no matter what the variety of food. Cook foods like eggs and meat, and make sure you are scrubbing fruit and cleaning your kitchen well.
Do your part, and hope for the best, the experts say.
"Labels like organic or local don't translate into necessarily safer products," says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They are capturing different values but not ensuring safety."
Bushway of the Organic Trade Association says one of the best checks on food safety is the devastating effect a recall or foodborne illness outbreak can have on a company's bottom line.
"It's just good business to make sure you are putting the safest products on the market," she says.