Your Organic Spinach Could Be More Dangerous Than Meat

Food safety recalls for fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides are on the rise.

(Photo: Rob Bertholf/Flickr)

Aug 21, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Organic food has become a big business. In terms of sales, this small sector of the U.S. ag market raked in more than $40 billion last year, up from about $27 million in 2010. That surge in revenue has not come without growing pains, however: A new report claims that food recalls for organic products are on the rise.

According to Stericycle, which helps facilitate recalls, 7 percent of all food recalls in 2015 were for organic products, up from 2 percent of recalls in 2014.

“What’s striking is that since 2012, all organic recalls have been driven by bacterial contamination, like salmonella, listeria and hepatitis A, rather than a problem with a label,” Kevin Pollack, the company’s vice president, told the The New York Times. “This is a fairly serious and really important issue because a lot of consumers just aren’t aware of it.”

Earlier this year, a number of organic food companies, including Amy’s Kitchen, issued voluntary recalls for products containing spinach that may have been contaminated with listeria. But just because organic products are being recalled—and even being recalled more—that doesn’t mean they are becoming more dangerous. Recalls related to bacterial contamination were up across the board this year, according to the Stericycle analysis (which relied on figures from the Food and Drug Administration), marking the third straight year of increases.

The general safety of organically grown food is subject to debate. Some studies have found that organic items have lower levels of bacteria contamination, while others suggest it is higher than in conventionally grown produce. A review of studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2012 found that, while rates of E. coli contamination were statistically equal, eating organic reduces exposure to pesticides and drug-resistant bacteria.

What is clear is that leafy greens, such as spinach, have come to present a larger food-safety risk than meat. According to a 2013 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of five cases of food-borne illness in the U.S. were caused by leafy greens, with more than half of cases resulting from vegetables. The CDC’s FoodNet project, which tracks food-borne illness, found that salmonella caused the most illnesses in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, followed by campylobacter.

But just as there is salmonella and E. coli bacteria present in organic and conventionally raised chickens and cattle alike, the same bacteria are going to show up on organic and conventional farms too. The USDA organic standards regulate what can and cannot be used on certified farms—pesticides, antibiotics, etc. But take it from the National Organic Program itself, which develops and updates the organic standards: “Our regulations do not address food safety or nutrition.”