News - January 20, 2010

Poor communication by organic food sector about risks

Organic meat is not as healthy as it may seem. It has a greater risk of being infected by bacteria and parasites than regular meat. Communication about these negative aspects should be improved, say researchers at Wageningen UR Livestock Research and Plant Research International (PRI) in December's Journal of Food Protection.

'Consumers should be able to decide whether they want to run a slightly higher food safety risk by eating organic meat', thinks Meerburg of PRI. ''There is often one-sided information about the positive aspects of organic livestock farming, such as greater animal welfare and less use of antibiotics and pesticides. That's a pity.'
Meerburg says it is logical that animals on an organic farm pick up more pathogens. That is due to the production system allowing the animals to go outside. However outside is where danger lurks. Rodents transfer pathogens but cats are also a source of parasites, such as Toxoplasma. The meat can also become contaminated by bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli.
The article refers to research in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, where all organic chickens are infected with Campylobacter as opposed to only ten per cent in conventional chicken farms. 'When preparing and cooking organic meat, it is wise to allow for the increased risk of bacterial infection, by cooking the meat through more thoroughly for example', says Meerburg. 'Freezing the meat beforehand also works well.' Meerburg feels it is important for the sector to give more information about the food safety risks. In his opinion this would only serve to strengthen the organic food sector. It would prevent organic food being discredited by the media and a loss of public confidence in organic products if any problems came to light.
Behind the times
Peter Jens, director of Biologica, the organization that promotes the consumption and quality improvement of organic products, says the problems identified by Meerburg and his colleagues are no longer an issue. 'We held an extensive workshop in February 2009 looking at food quality, safety and the health aspects of organic products', explains Jens. 'There was a huge improvement in communication about potential food safety risks after that workshop; the article is months behind the times.'