An Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) panel released a report entitled Antimicrobial Resistance: Implications for the Food System on June 26, 2006. Because the report and IFT's accompanying fact sheet contained erroneous information about organic, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) has prepared the following facts. Troubling and confusing statements from IFT's press releases about the 180-page plus report include:
- "Organic meat production may involve potentially higher safety risks due to prohibition of antimicrobial use; raising animals in an outdoor environment; longer growth periods; use of small slaughtering facilities."
- "Bacteria in organic meat and poultry are likely more susceptible to antimicrobials because antimicrobials are prohibited in organic livestock production."
FACT: Organic farmers and processors follow all federal, state, and local health standards, and do so in ways that enhance the environment and the public health.
FACT: Certified organic growers and processors not only are inspected by third-party independent certifiers in order to qualify for organic certification, but they also follow strict guidelines for safe and hygienic food production. In order to keep organic livestock as healthy as possible, organic animals are raised in healthful living conditions appropriate to the species and in conditions designed to prevent illness. Pasteurization (an antimicrobial), selected use of chlorine (an antimicrobial), hydrogen peroxide (an antimicrobial) and other food safety practices are allowed and followed in organic production. IFT's report claimed erroneously that antimicrobials are not allowed in organic practices.
FACT: Organic practices recognize and respect the powerful nature of antibiotics. As a result, organic practices prohibit the use of hormones, antibiotics or other animal drugs in animal feed for the purpose of stimulating the growth or production of livestock.
Even IFT experts report that there is preliminary evidence that antibiotic use in food animals results in human health risks. However, for several years, respected organizations, such as the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization, have recommended against the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture in order to protect the public health because they report that these uses contribute to development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. See http://www.ota.com/organic/benefits/antibiotics.html for more concerns about antibiotic use.
If an antibiotic is used to restore an animal on an organic farm to health, that animal cannot be used for organic production or be sold, labeled or represented as organic. Thus, organic practices avoid the abuse of antibiotics that could have profound consequences for treatment of diseases in humans.
FACT: As the IFT report shows (pages 53 and 54), bacteria that may be present in organic meat and poultry are not as antibiotic resistant and therefore the use of an allowed antimicrobial on that meat is more likely to kill that bacteria than if the bacteria are from a non-organic food animal that has been exposed to antibiotics on the farm or in processing.
FACT: Conventional and organic agriculture both use manure as a part of regular farm soil fertilization programs. Certified organic farmers, however, must maintain a strict farm plan detailing the methods used to build soil fertility, including the application of manure as mandated by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. No other agricultural regulation in the United States imposes such strict control on the use of manure. National organic standards require that in no case shall raw manure be applied less than 120 days prior to harvesting products likely to be eaten raw, or less than 90 days prior to harvest of products protected by a husk, pod or shell. Certifiers and scientists recommend the use of well-composted manure to reduce the incidence of E. coli. These recommendations are not in effect for conventional farming that uses manure or sewage sprays.
Very little data exists about how farming practices effect potential for foodborne illness. What is known is that organic farmers produce healthy products without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, and growth hormones, which are all allowed in non-organic production. Organic foods are processed in ways that meet all local, state, and federal health codes without the use of irradiation or other methods that have questionable long-term effects on the environment, and, potentially on public health.
In fact, in one study cited by IFT, there are important, but unhighlighted facts in the study about results from certified organic techniques. A study by Mukherjee et al, published in the Journal of Food Protection (Vo. 67, No. 5, 2004), found that the percentage of E. coli prevalence in certified organic produce was similar to that in conventional samples. However, it did find a marked difference in the prevalence of E. coli between the samples from certified and non-certified organic farms. "Ours is the first study that suggests a potential association between organic certification and reduced E. coli prevalence," the authors wrote. They noted that the results of the study "do not support allegations that organic produce poses a substantially greater risk of pathogen contamination than does conventional produce."
Regardless of the methods used to grow and process the food, cooks at home need to follow safe handling procedures-store foods at the proper temperature, keep meat and vegetables separate, wash hands and utensils after handling raw meats, wash produce before eating it, and cook meats to the proper temperature.