CDC reports on risk of outbreaks linked to organic food

November 9, 2016

Journal of Food Protection study by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examines outbreaks linked to organic food and assesses whether the risk is greater than for conventionally-grown food.

Using the CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System, the researchers identified 18 outbreaks between 1992 and 2014 that were reportedly caused by organic food products. These outbreaks were linked to 779 illnesses, 258 hospitalizations, and three deaths. More than half of the total outbreaks, 56%, occurred from 2010–2014, which the study authors note reflects the increasing production and consumption of organically grown food in the United States and around the world.

The most commonly occurring pathogens were Salmonella, responsible for 44% of the outbreaks, while E. coli O157:H7 was responsible for 33% of the outbreaks, according to the study. Eight of the 18 outbreaks were attributed to produce items, four to unpasteurized dairy products, two to eggs, two to nut and seed products, and two to multi-ingredient foods. Fifteen of the 18 outbreaks were associated with foods that were definitely or likely U.S. Dept. of Agriculture-certified as organic.

“Consumer perception often credits organic foods as being safer than conventionally-produced foods, although organic standards do not directly address safety issues such as microbial or chemical hazards,” wrote the researchers.

Unfortunately, the researchers were unable to assess risk of outbreaks due to organic foods compared with conventional foods because information about how food is produced, whether conventional or organic, is not systematically collected through the National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS). It is therefore difficult to compare outbreaks linked to differing production methods. Food safety requires focused attention by consumers, regardless of whether foods are produced organically or conventionally. Consumers should be aware of the risk of milk and produce consumed raw, including organic.