The lethal elephant in the room: Real risks in our food

Even as speculation about imaginary risks of GM foods continues, particularly among some organic sector enthusiasts, real food risks in the food chain remain unmanaged.
Exposure of fresh vegetable produce to manure is a case in point. Pathogenic Escherichia coli are one of more frequent health dangers of fresh vegetables. These bacteria can be present in manure, and they spread in faeces and water. Tragically, banning of GM crops in Germany has not eliminated these risks.
Another death in German E. coli O104 outbreak; consumers advised to not eat fresh tomatoes, cucumbers or salad 25 May 20 11 on Barfblog by Doug Powell

Another woman died in Germany on Wednesday after being treated for infection with the virulent enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) bacteria on Wednesday, as government minister warned the situation remained “threatening.”

Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner and Health Minister Daniel Bahr called for everyone to take particular care with food hygiene at a press conference in Berlin.
Except the public health authority, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) advised this evening not to eat any tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce from northern Germany.
Sounds like an on-farm problem, not a consumer problem; needs to be prevented, isn’t going to be washed off.
The latest woman to die was a 41-year-old from Cuxhaven – although she was being treated for the symptoms of EHEC infection since May 21, her cause of death will now be investigated.
The number of people confirmed to have died in Germany from EHEC infection has reached three. But health officials said an elderly woman who died on Sunday in Stormarn, Schleswig Holstein, was not killed by the bacteria.

Outbreak Linked to Spanish Cucumbers 26 May 2011 in Der Speigel

Researchers have found the first link to the source of the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany: Spanish cucumbers. As the number of infections increase and spread outside the country, consumers are being warned to avoid certain vegetables.
Scientists at Hamburg’s Institute for Hygiene and Environment have found the deadly E. coli bacteria causing the outbreak in northern Germany, city Health Minister Cornelia Prüfer-Storcks said Thursday. Three out of four cucumbers carrying the dangerous strain of the bacteria were from an organic shipment from Spain being sold in Hamburg supermarkets.
“Information on their origins and further details are now being assembled,” she said, adding that the test results may not be relevant to infections arising in other areas. “It can’t be ruled out that other products will come into question as the source of infection,” she said… (continues at link)

For more news coverage, see: E.coli deaths continue as ministers warn of threat

Update

German E. coli O104 update: 10 dead, 276 HUS, 1000 sick 29 May 2011 from Doug Powell’s Barfblog

More women have died in Germany from an E. coli O104 outbreak linked to cucumbers grown in Spain, bringing the death toll to 10. Of the 1,000 or so sick, 276 have hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).Hospitals in the city of Hamburg, where more than 400 people are believed to have been infected, were said to be overwhelmed and sending patients to clinics elsewhere in the country.
Austria’s food safety agency ordered a recall of organically grown cucumbers, tomatoes and aubergines supplied by a Spanish producer which is thought to be the source of the outbreak. It said 33 Austrian stores were affected.
According to Denmark’s National Serum Institute, there are nine confirmed cases, with at least another eight people suspected of having the intestinal infection, also known as VTEC, in Denmark.
Sweden has reported 25 E. coli cases, of whom 10 developed HUS, according to the European Commission, while Britain counted three cases (two HUS).
Officials in the Czech Republic said the cucumbers may have been exported there, as well as to Austria, Hungary and Luxembourg.
“As long as the experts in Germany and Spain have not been able to name the source of the agent without any doubt, the general warning for vegetables still holds,” German Agriculture and Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner said on Sunday in a report in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
The European Commission says experts are now probing two agricultural sites in southern Spain, in Almeria and Malaga, suspected of exporting products, most likely cucumbers, tainted with E. coli.
http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/29/us-germany-ecoli-idUSTRE74S12V20110529
http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/153939/20110529/germany-cucumber-e-coli.htm
http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/health/2011-05/29/c_13899931.htm

German E. coli O104 update: 10 dead, 276 HUS, 1000 sick 29 May 2011 from Doug Powell’s Barfblog

More women have died in Germany from an E. coli O104 outbreak linked to cucumbers grown in Spain, bringing the death toll to 10. Of the 1,000 or so sick, 276 have hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).Hospitals in the city of Hamburg, where more than 400 people are believed to have been infected, were said to be overwhelmed and sending patients to clinics elsewhere in the country.Austria’s food safety agency ordered a recall of organically grown cucumbers, tomatoes and aubergines supplied by a Spanish producer which is thought to be the source of the outbreak. It said 33 Austrian stores were affected.According to Denmark’s National Serum Institute, there are nine confirmed cases, with at least another eight people suspected of having the intestinal infection, also known as VTEC, in Denmark.Sweden has reported 25 E. coli cases, of whom 10 developed HUS, according to the European Commission, while Britain counted three cases (two HUS).Officials in the Czech Republic said the cucumbers may have been exported there, as well as to Austria, Hungary and Luxembourg.”As long as the experts in Germany and Spain have not been able to name the source of the agent without any doubt, the general warning for vegetables still holds,” German Agriculture and Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner said on Sunday in a report in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.The European Commission says experts are now probing two agricultural sites in southern Spain, in Almeria and Malaga, suspected of exporting products, most likely cucumbers, tainted with E. coli.
http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/29/us-germany-ecoli-idUSTRE74S12V20110529
http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/153939/20110529/germany-cucumber-e-coli.htm
http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/health/2011-05/29/c_13899931.htm
German E. coli O104 update: 14 dead, 352 HUS, 1200 sick
POSTED: MAY 30TH, 2011 – 5:54PM BY DOUG POWELL
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said in a risk assessment today that the HUS/STEC E. coli O104 outbreak is the largest in the world of its kind, with 14 dead, 352 with hemolytic uremic syndrome and over 1,200 sick.

German Health Minister Daniel Bahr said Monday that authorities still haven’t pinned down definitively the source of the E. coli infection — and “we unfortunately still have to expect a rising number of cases.”

An EU official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to standing regulations, said the transport chain was long, and the cucumbers from Spain could have been contaminated at any point along the route.

Spain, meanwhile, went on the defensive, saying there was no proof that the E. coli outbreak has been caused by Spanish vegetables.

You can’t attribute the origin of this sickness to Spain,” Spain’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, Diego Lopez Garrido told reporters in Brussels. “There is no proof and that’s why we are going to demand accountability from those who have blamed Spain for this matter.”

EU spokesman Frederic Vincent said Sunday that two greenhouses in Spain that were identified as the source of the contaminated cucumbers had ceased activities. The water and soil there are being analyzed to see whether they were the problem, and the results are expected Tuesday or Wednesday, Vincent said.

Update 1/06/2011 Australian time

The Spanish cucumbers have a different EHEC E.coli strain. They are not safe, but they are not the cause of the big problem. This is not good news as we know don’t yet know the cause(s) of the big EU problem. It just became a bigger problem.

Update

Glossary:

Outbreak of E. coli acronyms in Germany

CABI Blog

Germany seems to be suffering an outbreak of acronyms alongside an unusual outbreak of foodborne E. coli. Reports list the culprit as STEC, EHEC, VTEC, shiga toxin producing E. coli, verotoxin producing E. coli….They are all talking about the same thing.

Heres a quick guide to E coli diarrhoea acronyms and a summary of the outbreak plus some resources [link just above].

Pundit’s Opinion:
Human health risks from mis-managed faecal matter on vegetable produce should be put under an intense media spot-light because lack of precaution about poop really does kill.
See Chassy and Tribe 2010 for more discussion, as well as Organic salad with Salmonella, Salmonella in organic Chinese peanuts, Farm in transition to organic farming linked to spinach disaster, and other GMO Pundit posts about E. coli and Salmonella.

Written by David Tribe

David Tribe’s research career in academia and industry has covered molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbial evolution and biotechnology. He has over 60 publications and patents. Dr. Tribe's recent activities focus on agricultural policy and food risk management. He teaches graduate programs in food science and risk management as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Melbourne.

50 comments

  1. Tragically, banning of GM crops in Germany has not eliminated these risks

    Did a bit of a double take here. Why would one link the two? Banning GM crops obviously isn’t going to eliminate a risk inherent to eating food grown in manure – neither however is not banning – this isn’t a GM issue – if there were GM vegetables which killed E.coli then perhaps this would have a point – even with the vaguely elevated risk of infection from organic crops I think it somewhat underhand to go about acting as if organic is scary and awful – it simply plays into the general fear around food which is overblown anyway (the same fear that makes otherwise sensible folk think the precautionary principle is anything other than horse crap) – I’m as happy to eat an organic carrot as I am to eat GM containing products – sure, the risk ratio is skewed to be larger in the case of the organic produce – but those risks are so infinitesimally small as to be meaningless to anyone other than fearmongerers.
    It’s fair enough to bring up the difference when directly confronted with someone crying about nebulous risks, but when it turns into what appears to be an attack on organic ag, rather than simply pointing out the doublethink required to be scared of infinitessimal risks in one sphere but not another, its a little distastful (Organic farmers are people too!)

    1. I’m with Ewan here. While people are running around being concerned about biotechnology which hasn’t harmed anyone, people are dying from perfectly preventable food borne illness – the food borne illness has nothing to do with biotechnology – unless someone comes up with an anti-bacterial trait but I don’t know if that’s a good idea anyway.

      1. It also needs to be taken into account that really it isn’t that many people who are dying from preventable food borne illnesses – hundreds of millions of meals are likely prepared from organic fruit and veg every year and you see a mere handful of cases where it poses a serious danger – it’s an inherent risk to be sure – but nothing to get excited about – mistakes will be made in the system, which is precisely why we have public health authorities etc to minimize damage, and there are rules and regulations in place to keep the risk astronomically low – its a little unseemly to be taking pot shots at organic ag on the one hand and then claiming that co-existance is key – this shouldn’t be a fight between them and us – in the same way that using GM shouldn’t be – painting it as such probably does as much to polarize the debate as does arguing the pertinent facts (if not moreso) while at the same time being essentially meaningless in terms of the debate (unless someone else brings up the risk of GMO while espousing that organic is 100% safe – then you point it out, but with the caveat that the risk associated with organic, while larger than that associated with GM (infinitely so one might argue, given that it is real and measurable whereas the tangible risks posed by GM crops are as close to zero as to be meaningless) are still so small as to not be a serious consideration when choosing whether or not one wishes to consume organic food)
        As a side note I agree with Anastasia that E.coli killing broccoli wouldn’t be a good idea… pretty sure it’d never make it through regulatory.

    2. The link between is the German government, and the focus of EU regulation. In Germany and much of the EU there is active promotion of agricultural systems that rely on manure, while safety resources such as the EFSA are massively devoted to analysis of GM risks. Resources are finite, and the attention of people is biased away from giving attention to real risks in proportion to their likely effects.
      The EFSA for instance, has noted that their work load has been overly occupied to repeated re-analysis of GM issues, limiting them from getting on with other safety issues.
      Human resouces are finite, while problems are numerous.

      1. This just in, illustrating another aspect of wasting resources of the EFSA:
        Some European officials still bitter over aspartame’s sweet results
        Even though its been decades since numerous international governmental health authorities approved the use of aspartame as a food additive, the European Commission is not satisfied with the abundance of studies on the matter and is asking the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to conduct and expedite yet another re-evaluation of the artificial sweetener by July 2012.
        Even though two studies earlier this year — an animal study on carcinogenicity and an epidemiological study on sweeteners and pre-term delivery — have not demonstrated any reason to re-evalute the safety of aspartame, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are still concerned over the alleged health effects associated with aspartame.
        “All the science indicates that aspartame is safe, yet they’re still calling for another review — what a huge waste of time and money,” notes Dr. Ross. “This reminds me of the U.S. EPA’s decision last year to re-evaluate the herbicide Atrazine, even though it’s already been evaluated a hundred times or more. And much the same argument could be made for the FDA’s lack of closure on the proven safety of bisphenol A (BPA).”
        An exasperated Dr. Whelan asks, “When will it end? What will these agencies finally consider to be definitive?”

      2. Let me add to this.
        The EU has spent maybe 100 million EURO on GMO safety assessment and this has probably cost them much more in delays to innovation. The money and effort would have better spent on bacterial safety of vegetable produce which has just cost them billions and about 14 to 20 lives and thousands of sick people.
        They didn’t keep their eyes on the ball. Their eyes were on a green dream. They missed the opportunity to save lives

        1. The EU also however spends somewhere in excess of 40 billion Euro on the common agricultural policy – part of the requirements for receiving CAP payments does appear to be compliance with regulatory standards (its getting late in the day and my ability to read beurocratic nonsense may be somewhat atrophied – it seems to be termed compulsory cross compliance and appears to be a lynchpin in getting CAP money) – as such the money spent on GMO safety assessment pales in comparison to the giant carrot held up to the argricultural community to prevent such things from occuring – clearly some money has to be spent on GM safety assessment – whether or not 100 million euro is excessive is beyond me (is that per year, or total since 1995?) equally unclear is a direct measure of how this would have helped prevent these cases of food-borne illness – I’d put money on a 100M euro increase in funding over a decade having very little impact (although that is based on my as yet unevidenced belief that the EU already spends a metric butt-tonne on food safety) on the case described.

    3. It’s fair enough to bring up the difference when directly confronted with someone crying about nebulous risks, but when it turns into what appears to be an attack on organic ag, rather than simply pointing out the doublethink required to be scared of infinitessimal risks in one sphere but not another, its a little distastful (Organic farmers are people too!)

      It just happens that this week an organic group issues this press release.
      Media Release, Biological farmers of Australia, 25 May 2011
      Toxins in human & foetal blood caused by genetically modified food
      Research in Canada has identified a Bt toxin, produced by genetically modified (GM) insect resistant crops, in the blood of women. The study also shows the toxin was passed on through fetal blood.
      The study was undertaken at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec where a team of researchers studied samples of blood from 30 pregnant women, 30 umbilical cords and 39 non-pregnant women – all women were close in age.
      The study shows the long-term held belief that all Bt-toxin is destroyed in the gut to be untrue.
      BFA spokesperson, Dr Maarten Stapper, said the research proves, “not all Bt-toxin is broken down in the gut when we eat GM food or in plants when they senesce, as GM scientists and food safety authorities have us led to believe.”
      “They [GM scientists and food safety authorities] claim GM crops are safe as they have undergone more tests than non-GM before being released. That may be so but they are not conducting appropriate long-term and generational studies on GM effects after long-term use.”
      The conclusion of the research paper states; To our knowledge, this is the first study to highlight the presence of pesticides associated genetically modified foods in maternal, fetal and non-pregnant women’s blood. 3MPPA [3-methylphosphinicopropionic acid] and Cry1Ab toxin [Bt toxin] are clearly detectable and appear to cross the placenta to the fetus. Given the potential toxicity of these environmental pollutants and the fragility of the fetus, more studies are needed, particularly those using the placental transfer approach. (2011)
      Dr Stapper says that while over two trillion meals made with GM ingredients have been consumed across the world without any obvious health issues, he believes the long-term negative health effects of consuming GM are yet to be understood.
      “It is a considerable concern that there are no published studies to show GM safety in long-term soil health or generational animal feeding. Why are there no such official publications when unauthorised ones show many health problems in 2nd and 3rd generations? Why would we accept being guinea pigs?” Dr Stapper said.
      Dr Andrew Monk, Director and Standards Convenor, Biological Farmers of Australia, said that due to loose labelling laws, buying certified organic remains one of the only guarantees to consumers that food is not made with GM ingredients.
      “It pays to take the precautionary approach and buy certified organic. Our research shows consumers’ top reasons for choosing organic include avoiding chemicals, additives, antibiotics and GM food as well as helping the environment,” said Andrew.
      Reference: Aris A, Leblanc S. Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada. Reprod Toxicol (2011), doi:10.1016/j.reprotox.2011.02.00
      ENDS.
      This same organic group repeated makes threats of legal action when the issue of organic food microbiological safety is bought up. I have been personally threatened by them twice during public debates. Clearly sections the industry is promoting their product using fear-mongering about competitive foods.
      In these circumstances it is appropriate to scrutinise the relative safety of their produce. They have made it a marketing issue.

  2. “records from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada revealed organic and all-natural products are eight times more likely to be recalled for safety problems, including bacterial contamination.”
    http://www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets/dockets/06p0094/06p-0094-cp00001-05-Tab-04-Food-Marketing-Institute-vol1.pdf
    This is not “infinitesimally small”. How small can it truly be when the results can range from permanent disability to death?
    This has everything to do with GM crops and foods made with them. Organic people say that GM foods need to be labeled so that disability and death resulting from GMOs can be traced through the food supply. This means we have to turn this assault on common sense back upon them. Compromising food safety for the sake of “healthy dirt” is an illegitimate trade-off. If they can’t put their house in order, we need legislation to make it a criminal offense, just like we fine and jail people who sell raw milk.
    Until that happens, the Certified Organic label means that the food has been produced by dangerous, unscientific methods.

  3. “eight times more likely to be recalled for safety problems, including bacterial contamination”
    Eight times a tiny tiny number is still a tiny tiny number – reporting like this doesn’t tell you anything at all. It says nothing about number of people made ill, nothing about the number of deaths (the size of the risk, by the by, has nothing to do with what it is a risk of – if I have a 1 in 10 million chance of being impaled by a spike for making this post this remains an infinitesimally small chance and one that would require no legislative protection or witch hunting) – perhaps there exists evidence that my claims of the risk being too ludicrously small to demonize the entire organic methodology – however it doesn’t lie in the provided link.

    1. I agree, definitely don’t demonise all organic technology, but place attention on whether substantial risks are adequately managed.
      The example of Listeria risks in food illustrates risk management is not only determined by numbers. Listeria illness is a minor fraction of all food-borne illness. But it properly gets a lot of attention, because the consequences for the fetus and new parents are devastating.
      The consequences of EHEC E. coli infections are similarly devastating.

    2. Ewan,
      May I deduce from your remarks that an equal number of illnesses and deaths attributable to GM crops would be acceptable?
      Or perhaps it would be more fair to posit a number of illnesses and deaths proportional to the prevalence of GM crops and foods made from them. Would that be acceptable?
      Let’s see if I can get the math right. 0.05 percent of US land is devoted to organic crops. Let’s posit the prevalence of GM crops/foods in the US at 80 percent (basically corn, soy, cottonseed and canola). That gives you a multiplier of 1,600. Three dead in Germany x 1,600 = 4800.
      Oh yes, but the percentage is ‘so small’. Ewan, say it isn’t so.

      1. No Eric, you may not – presence of pathogens in mismanaged manure is a defined risk which has been deemed (as far as I am aware) unacceptable by regulatory agencies who oversee organic production – that a handful of cases per year get through the net is, in my opinion, no reason to call for a whole system (or multiple systems) of agriculture to be made illegal – if GM crops held the risk you’re talking about certainly they shouldn’t be commercialized – however the mistakes that were made clearly also shouldn’t be allowed in a commercial operation and should be prosecuted – your argument is akin, I think, to banning the automobile because people can drive drunk – regulation and enforcement of regulations is required – which I think perhaps is where David is going with the whole resource allocation thing – although one would then have to look at the actual resourcing of the various regulatory structures in Europe to see how well this arguement holds up – what is required on an organic farm in Europe in terms of documentation, how well is this maintained, how many inspectors are employed to ensure regulations are being followed (I’d be surprised here if it was poorly resourced based purely on the near food-phobic nature of the European public in general)

        My point is simply that the use of risky food production methods which result in *any* disease or death is utterly unacceptable, no matter how small the numbers might be.

        This smacks of the precautionary principle and is not really a way in which one could run any sort of agricultural system whatsoever – there will be inherent risks with any system particularly when proper techniques are not used – what if too much pesticide is applied and levels on food are such that a bunch of folk get sick – does one then ban all pesticide use? What of the practice in sugar cane of burning the field prior to harvest – this has certainly caused deaths in Texas – do we ban the practice because of this or do we take ore stringent measures to ensure that nobody is hiding in the fields? Do we outright ban the production of peanuts because one cannot ensure that allergens from the nuts will not end up in products designated peanut free?

        1. Organic farming, bottom line, is not regulated in the strict sense of the term. Organic farmers hire consultants to certify whether or not they are organic. The abuses of this system have recently been well-documented.
          Saying that all methods of food production involves risk does not imply that all risks should be ignored, or that they are all equal.
          Farmers have a choice of what to use for fertilizer: Haber-Bosch nitrogen, or feces.
          Which is safer? The choice is obvious.

          1. Which is safer? The choice is obvious.

            I dunno, would you rather be behind a tanker full of manure that crashes, or a tanker full of anhydrous? I’m thinking I’d rather get a bit stinky than watch my skin peel off.
            I’m utterly failing to find any good statistics (they may be out there, but I keep running into pay walls) but the literature appears to be replete with cases of agricultural accidents (case reports) where 30% burns, fatalities, blindings etc have been caused by anhydrous ammonia accidents (presumably predominantly through mismanagement etc) – are you for the prohibition of anhydrous ammonia? If not why not?
            Likewise the farm technology likely responsible for the most deaths is the tractor – should we be banning the tractor? Or do farmers and farm workers not actually matter?

          2. Ewan,
            The topic is food safety. Consumers of conventionally-grown produce need not worry about exposure to anhydrous (unless they’re running a meth lab) or tractors.

          3. My point is simply that the use of risky food production methods which result in *any* disease or death is utterly unacceptable, no matter how small the numbers might be.

            Why would this only apply at the back end and not the front end of the production process?

          4. Because producing and consuming are two very different activities. But that is so trivially obvious that you surely have a different point in mind.

          5. I don’t agree that the two should be decoupled – risky practices should be assessed from start to finish – if you’re going to state that haber-bosch nitrogen is perfectly safe then this really should be the case from start to finish (obviously it ain’t) – if deaths can arise from mismanagement in either practice then your above quoted statement is clearly at odds with your support of using the form of nitrogen widely used in conventional Ag. I’m personally of the opinion that the risks raised by anhydrous use and manure are both miniscule particularly in light of the regulatory burden placed on producers in both instances – clearly there is potential for both systems to have flaws, but anyone can see that asking for flawless systems is precisely the tactic utilized by those who espouse the precautionary principle – you can’t 100% guarantee anything – you can identify risks and work to mitigate them – I’d argue that this is the case in both utilization of anhydrous and manure as fertilizer.
            It also isn’t really the case that consumers of conventional produce need not worry about anhydrous or tractors – during field prep season and planting season I have to worry about these at least 5 days a week even if I’m purely working in the lab – as does anyone who drives down a road which may be used to get to or from a farm or indeed passes by a field which is likely to be fertilized – they don’t have to worry about either practice in their food for sure, but when assessing the safety of the whole system (as is fitting I think) these hazards, when rigorously looked at under your unforgiving criterion, would have to go the same way as organic ag.

          6. Most of the nitrogen in that load of manure likely came from a Haber-Bosch plant in the first place. There isn’t enough “naturally” fixed nitrogen to support the animal biomass that agriculture is now sustaining.
            Most of it comes from synthetic ammonia, then it gets recycled as manure.

          7. Ewan,
            Once again, you’re straying from the topic: food safety. Try to find a tractor, or anhydrous, in the grocery store. Then trace consumer illness/death from consuming tractors or anhydrous.

          8. Eric – no, I’m refusing to retain the narrow focus you request as it seems arbitrarily imposed to maintain the emphasis that organic is teh ebil – food safety needn’t only apply to the end product (else arguements around safety improvements of the RR system for instance would equally fall down utterly and be inadmissable)
            Daedalus2u – regardless of the original source of the nitrogen in the manure – nitrogen that was once anhydrous ammonia but is now protein, urea and whatnot is categorically less of a risk both on the roads and while being applied to the soil – keep in mind I’m not arguing that artificially fixed nitrogen should be removed from the ag system, just pointing out that without the rather arbitrary divide which Eric is applying post-hoc to his earlier statement (*any*) you simply wouldn’t be able to do any sort of modern ag whether using manure or anhydrous.

          9. Here is a paper on fatalities due to ammonia. Not all of them are related to fertilizer use, some are from the use of ammonia as a refrigerant.
            http://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/eh/hsees/PDFfiles/AmmoniaAccidentSumm.pdf
            In 23 years they list 50 fatalities. About 2.2 per year.
            The number of deaths due to manure accidents is somewhat higher.
            http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a902712978
            77 fatalities in 29 years is 2.7 fatalities per year.
            Deaths due to food born e coli (78) are about that many per year.
            http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol5no5/mead.htm
            It looks like anhydrous ammonia is about two orders of magnitude safer.

  4. Eric
    1) You left off the last half of the quote. It should be, “records from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada revealed organic and all-natural products are eight times more likely to be recalled for safety problems, including bacterial contamination AND MISLABELING.”
    2) “Natural” is grouped in here, and “natural” is not organic. In fact natural is usually conventional production that is simply trying to ride in on the coat tails of organic. To bulk the data from these two groups together does not provide an adequate picture of organic food safety. Plus this data was from 2002, the year the national organic program began – more recent data that is only tracks certified organic food is needed to make any useful claim about organic food safety.
    3) You imply in your final post that the 3 deaths in Germany were caused by organic food – and then suggest that if organic were to grow to the size of GMO production it would be 4800 deaths. I read Dr. Tribe’s link about the tomato and cucumber deaths and see no reference to this being linked to organic production.
    You obviously are on a smear campaign, and your posts detract from the other more informative commentators, particularly by using half quotes, muddy data (natural and organic, so conventional and organic) and false implications.

  5. Eric
    1) You left off the last half of the quote from the Food Market Institute regarding (an unreferenced) USDA and Health Canada study. It actually reads, “records from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada revealed organic and all-natural products are eight times more likely to be recalled for safety problems, including bacterial contamination AND MISLABELING.”
    – the and mislabeling is important, especially since many natural products have had label claim issues.
    2) “Natural” is grouped in here, and is important to note that “natural” is not organic. In fact natural is usually conventional production that is simply trying to ride in on the coat tails of organic, perhaps by making claims of using “healthier” grains – like Kashi cereal does – but this is not a certified production system and in fact natural has no legal status, but shouldn’t be bulked in with organic data. To bulk the data from these two groups together does not provide an adequate picture of organic food safety. Plus this data was from 2002, the year the US national organic program began – more recent data that is only tracks certified organic food is needed to make any useful claim about organic food safety.
    3) You imply in your final post that the 3 deaths in Germany were caused by organic food – and then suggest that if organic were to grow to the size of GMO production it would be 4800 deaths. I read Dr. Tribe’s link about the tomato and cucumber deaths and see no reference to this being linked to organic production.
    You obviously are on a smear campaign, and your posts detract from the other more informative commentators, particularly by using half quotes, muddy data (natural and organic, so conventional and organic) and false implications.

    1. I’ve seen it stated that it is linked to organic cucumbers:
      http://www.marlerblog.com/case-news/german-e-coli-o104h4-update—276-with-hemolytic-uremic-syndrome/

      German authorities have identified organic cucumbers from Spain as a source of the E. coli O104:H4. However, Spanish authorities are disputing that the contamination occurred in Spain. Interestingly, German officials continue to advise consumers not to eat raw cucumbers from Spain or tomatoes and lettuces from northern Germany.

      Also look at Marler’s blog for the organic sprouts from Tiny Greens that are linked to the Salmonella outbreak.

    2. Xi Hung
      Let’s assume that all natural and mislabeling account for half of the eight-fold risk.
      That leaves us with 2400 acceptable deaths from GM crops and foods.
      Okay, let’s say natural and mislabeling account for 75 percent of the eight-fold risk. That leaves us with 1200 deaths from GM crops and foods. Acceptable?

      1. Mislabeling could also be the issue of calling stuff organic which isn’t legally produced. We’ve seen more than one scandal now that shows people are intentionally calling food and products organic to take the money of people who want to eat organic food.

    1. daedalus2u,
      Your proposal to irradiate organic produce is excellent. This is because E. coli can be drawn into the plant through its roots. Inside the plant, no amount of washing/rinsing will remove the pathogens.
      It would be a great idea for *all* produce, and ground beef as well. Of course, the results would not be certifiable organic.
      Interestingly, a number of years ago, when I was in Germany, I found cartons of milk on grocery shelves. Not refrigerated. It had been irradiated in the carton, and the sell-by date was something like a year later. Not a word from Greenpeace.
      For now, the best alternative is to look for the organic label, and keep walking.

    2. Irradiation is also a potential solution to the large global food waste problem. It won’t fix everything, of course, but it would go a long way to helping food last longer so it wouldn’t go to waste.

  6. Yes, the math for your assumption is correct. However, I fail to see how anyone interested in a fact based discussion of food safety could make such an assumption. My point is that without data regarding the safety of organic food your entire criticism is built on sandy ground. You have failed to provide any such data. One could point to the recent issues with salmonella in eggs, and from that claim that “conventional egg production is unsafe” or even more radically “eggs are unsafe” – but the salmonella outbreak transmitted by eggs was neither an issue of conventional egg production or of eggs in and off themselves; it was a failure of management (from the producer) regulatory oversight (from government regulators). You bring up raw milk. There is no reason raw milk products are unsafe, but they must be well managed and regulated. The same goes for GMOs of course.
    Attacking a production system, a crop, a species – where is the science in this? All production systems can be safe, and most – in the US – are very very safe. Especially relative to any time in history. I understand that you feel attacked by some for being pro-GMO, but attacking a production system – especially one that does not show signs of mismanagement or regulation – if there were real food safety concerns the USDA would step in, consumers would be up in arms, etc. So perhaps there have been cases of organic cucumbers in Spain (but Mary, this has not been proven to be organic – your link showed no evidence just a theory that was not explained), just as there have been issues with conventional produce. Produce is difficult, any of you who have grown it on scale will know. What your neighbors do also impacts the safety. You can do a fine job of management, but your neighbor is not managing their dairy manure well and it contaminates your produce via animal or water. This, again, is not organic or conventional or GMO but all systems. There is no scientific evidence of any of these systems being less safe than the other in terms of food borne illness. There are safety concerns with inputs – perhaps more for conventional than organic, but both systems have them and must manage them. The same with nations. I see attacks of China. Yes, China needs better regulation, but not all Chinese producers are frauds and cheats. Yet many Americans act as if China were the enemy – the Monsanto of nations. Ha! Black and white thinking is the enemy.

    1. The issue is that there are claims made by the “organic is the one true way” contingent which are misleading people to suggest that organic food is above reproach. What some of us are saying is that it is not. I think you and I agree on that, apparently.
      Many of the same “one true way” folks want to remove food safety regulations from certain farms and farming systems with incorrect claims about the safety as well. I also think that’s wrong.
      I’m sorry you don’t like Bill Marler as a source. He’s very well connected and on top of food safety issues. Here’s Der Spiegel (emphasis mine):
      http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,765114,00.html

      Scientists at Hamburg’s Institute for Hygiene and Environment have found the deadly E. coli bacteria causing the outbreak in northern Germany, city Health Minister Cornelia Prüfer-Storcks said Thursday. Three out of four cucumbers carrying the dangerous strain of the bacteria were from an organic shipment from Spain being sold in Hamburg supermarkets.

      It’s too early to have a peer-reviewed source on this, but I’ll watch for that.

    2. Food exports from China are complex. I agree that black and white thinking is the enemy, yet there have been so many stories of food safety problems from China that I personally shy away from buying food from there. Even if each story is an isolated incident, as they most likely are, it still doesn’t paint a pretty picture. I’m also not that excited about having food travel from across the globe if it can be produced closer by in a similarly efficient manner.

    3. Xi Hung
      You miss my point entirely. My point is simply that the use of risky food production methods which result in *any* disease or death is utterly unacceptable, no matter how small the numbers might be. Intentionally exposing vegetables to feces, when alternatives are available, is criminally stupid.

    4. Then we have this to analyse: mycotoxins associated with organic practices
      http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/2005/11/toxins-made-by-fungi-can-be-issue-in.html
      Food Standards Agency UK
      More contaminated maize meal products withdrawn from sale
      Friday, 26 September 2003

      Ten maize meal products have been voluntarily withdrawn from sale in the UK after tests showed that they contained high levels of toxins called fumonisins. These naturally occurring chemicals are produced by a mould that can grow on maize in the field. High levels of fumonisins have been shown to cause liver and kidney damage in animals after they have eaten them over a long period.
      It is possible that they could have the same effect on people if they eat high levels of fumonisins for long periods.
      Thirty maize meal products were tested after two earlier samples of maize meal were found to contain high levels of fumonisins during a wider study of these toxins in maize-based products. The results so far from this wider survey show much lower levels of fumonisins in other maize-based products such as tortillas and breakfast cereals.
      Suppliers of maize meal have been asked by the Agency to test their products to make sure they do not contain unacceptable levels of these toxins. Retailers and importers of the affected products have voluntarily withdrawn them from sale. The Agency has notified the European Commission (EC), which is liaising with other countries in Europe. While there is currently no limit for fumonisins in food, the EC has proposed a limit of 500 micrograms per kilogram in all maize-based foods.
      The levels found in the 10 samples which have been withdrawn are above that proposed by the EC. However, there is unlikely to be any significant risk to health if these products are consumed.
      Ten maize meal products affected:
      Corn Flour, Ladin
      Organically Grown Fine Maize Meal, Arjuna Wholefoods
      Organic Maize Meal Infinity Foods
      Organic Maize Flour, Organic Health

      Maize Meal, Nature’s Harvest
      Maize Meal – Organically Grown & Produced, Suma
      Maismehl, Baktat

      Farina Di Mais Per Polenta Bramata, Favero
      Organically Grown Corn/Maize Flour, Alara Wholefoods
      Organic Corn Flour, Fresh and Wild
      Occurrence of five 8-ketotrichothecene mycotoxins in organically and conventionally produced cereals collected in Korea
      Hyun Ee Oka, Sung-Wook Choia, Hyun Joo Changa, Myung-Sub Chungb and Hyang Sook Chuna, ,
      a Food Safety Research Division, Korea Food Research Institute, Sungnam 463-746, Republic of Korea
      b Department of Food Science and Technology, Chung-Ang University, Ansung 456-756, Republic of Korea
      Received 31 August 2010; revised 13 March 2011; accepted 19 March 2011. Available online 29 March 2011.
      Abstract
      A total of 188 cereal samples, consisting of conventionally (n = 99) and organically (n = 89) produced rice, brown rice, barley and corn were analyzed by gas chromatograph-electron capture detector for five 8-ketotrichothecenes (deoxynivalenol (DON), nivalenol (NIV), 3-acetyldeoxynivalenol (3ADON), 15-acetyldeoxynivalenol (15ADON) and fusarenone-X (FUS-X)). Recoveries of these five toxins spiked at 200 μg/kg in barley and corn ranged from 73% to 96% with a relative standard deviation of 2.6%–10.8%. The overall incidence of DON, NIV, 3ADON, 15ADON and FUS-X was 38%, 40%, 14%, 43% and 9% for conventionally produced cereals and 40%, 63%, 30%, 41%, and 18% for organically produced cereals, respectively. The mean levels of DON, NIV, 3ADON, 15ADON and FUS-X in the toxin-positive samples were, respectively, 46.7, 23.3, 4.1, 6.6 and 10.7 μg/kg for conventionally produced cereals and 59.3, 32.4, 4.1, 9.9 and 7.3 μg/kg for organically produced cereals. No significant differences in DON, 3ADON, 15ADON and FUS-X concentrations were found between conventionally produced and organically produced cereals. However, the levels of NIV in organically produced rice and brown rice were significantly higher than those in the corresponding conventional samples. These data indicate that the contamination of cereals with 8-ketotrichothecenes may vary greatly according to the type of cereals grown as well as to the production method, such as organic farming.
      Keywords: 8-ketotrichothecenes; Deoxynivalenol; Nivalenol; Organic; Conventional; Cereals

  7. Irradiated food by its very nature will be genetically modified. Yes? Hundreds of thousands of randomly mutated genes in there I’d guess.

    1. Some genetic changes, yes. Hundreds of thousands? It depends on the strength and duration of the radiation. Anyway, what difference does it make? All organisms on/in the meat/produce/whatever would be killed, so any genetic changes would never be expressed.
      Plus, if that’s your definition of genetically modified than every living thing under the sun (literally) is genetically modified. 🙂

  8. Eric,
    I do agree with you that risky food production is unacceptable, but I disagree that the organic system is inherently more risky. This is where we differ. Perhaps you miss my point – it is management and regulation, or the lack thereof that create risk, not the system. Using manure is not more inherently risky than using anhydrous ammonia in terms of externalizations if well managed. AA may be safer in terms of exposure to bacteria, but certainly not in long term impact Solid research out there on nitrates in rural well water at unhealthy levels – from AA – and correlation to cancer. This might not come up under “food safety” but is it an acceptable risk to you?
    Also, for example in the California spinach issue, it was very likely mismanagement of conventional manure from an neighbors farm that caused a transitional spinach crop to have e coli. The e coli was traced with near certainty back to a neighbors dairy farm – and thought that it was brought in via a wild animal or water runoff – not by the spinach producer applying manure.
    I fear I sound like a bureaucrat, but all systems are capable of fatal flaws when poorly managed and regulated. The US financial system clearly exemplifies this simple fact. Does this mean big banks are bad? No, of course not.
    Mary, thank you for that other link – it would seem authorities are leaning towards this source. But again this is not specifically an organic issue – and there is no research showing that it happens more often on organic than conventional produce operations.
    Anastasia, yes, I agree that more local system is better in most cases. That’s a larger discussion, because there are cases where local is not always better (natural gas heated greenhouses in northern regions versus shipping of such crops from southerly regions) and it depends of course on definition of better. But yes, you mention based on efficiencies so we likely agree.
    China has many problems in production, but I think it is fair to say that the media likes to play some of this up, and that there is fear of China’s economic power from many in US. Perhaps a topic for another web site. I do not want to defend bad management and regulation, especially without figures – and one thing the Chinese government does poorly is allow open access to food safety data even domestically.

    1. There is no good research linking nitrate in drinking water to adverse health effects, and essentially none linking nitrate in drinking water to cancer. The cancer risk is purely hypothetical from a theoretical risk of nitrates forming nitrosoamines in the gut. This has not been observed in vivo.
      The data linking nitrate in drinking water to methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome) is quite poor. The only cases seem to be when contaminated water (containing both nitrate and bacteria) is used to make powdered formula. Bacteria in nitrate containing water when given powdered milk can reduce the nitrate to nitrite. Nitrite oxidizes hemoglobin to methemoglobin and produces nitrate. The nitrate can then be reduced in the gut by bacteria, or by xanthine oxidoreductase found in milk. Pathogenic bacteria in the gut can cause expression of iNOS which can make enough NO (which gets oxidized to nitrite and nitrate and can make methemoglobin too).
      Nitrate in drinking water is not associated with any adverse health effects in adults. There is a general consensus in the nitric oxide research community that nitrate is a nutrient, consumption of which leads to better health. The major source of nitrate in the diet is green leafy vegetables which contain a few thousand ppms. Most NO researchers think the beneficial effects of a diet rich in green leafy vegetables is due to the nitrate they contain.
      In any case, organic fertilizers get converted to nitrate too. Organic fertilizer has to be mineralized before plants can absorb it. Synthetic fertilizers don’t have the bacteria associated with manure, or the perchlorate associated with Chilean sodium nitrate.

    2. No research linking organic use of manure to health risks?
      Lets look at some of the evidence in the literature and from food disease outbreaks:
      See GMO Pundit:
      Organic Chinese peanuts implicated in earlier Salmonella complaint at factory in center of current Salmonella investigation
      Hazards of E. coli in organic food produce documented.
      Toppling the organic house of cards.
      and the regular literature:
      California Food Emergency Response Team (2007)
      Investigation of an Escherichia Coli O157:H7 Outbreak Associated with Dole Pre-packaged Spinach (eds California Dept. of Health Services Food and Drug Branch and USDA), pp. 50. USDA
      Islam, M., Doyle, M.P., Phatak, S.C., Millner, P., & Jiang, X.P. (2004)
      Persistence of enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli O157 : H7 in soil and on leaf lettuce and parsley grown in fields treated with contaminated manure composts or irrigation water. Journal of Food Protection, 67, 7, pp 1365-1370
      Islam, M., Doyle, M.P., Phatak, S.C., Millner, P., & Jiang, X.P. (2005)
      Survival of Escherichia coli O157 : H7 in soil and on carrots and onions grown in fields treated with contaminated manure composts or irrigation water. Food Microbiology, 22, 1, pp 63-70
      Kuhnert, P., Dubosson, C.R., Roesch, M., Homfeld, E., Doherr, M.G., & Blum, J.W. (2005)
      Prevalence and risk-factor analysis of Shiga toxigenic Escherichia coli in faecal samples of organically and conventionally farmed dairy cattle. Veterinary Microbiology, 109, 1-2, pp 37-45
      Mukherjee, A., Speh, D., Dyck, E., & Diez-Gonzalez, F. (2004)
      Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157 : H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. Journal of Food Protection, 67, 5, pp 894-900
      Mukherjeea, A., Speh, D., & Diez-Gonzaleza, F. (2007)
      Association of farm management practices with risk of Escherichia coli contamination in pre-harvest produce grown in Minnesota and Wisconsin. International Journal of Food Microbiology 120, 3, pp 296-302
      Johannessen, G.S., Bengtsson, G.B., Heier, B.T., Bredholt, S., Wasteson, Y., & Rorvik, L.M. (2005)
      Potential uptake of Escherichia coli O157 : H7 from organic manure into crisphead lettuce. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 71, 5, pp 2221-2225

      1. Then there is this, just in:
        http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/06/tiny-greens-was-growing-the-outbreak-salmonella-strain/
        FOODBORNE ILLNESS OUTBREAKS
        FDA: Tiny Greens Grew Outbreak Salmonella Strain
        BY DAN FLYNN | JUN 01, 2011

        The strain of Salmonella that sickened 94 people in 16 states and the District of Columbia last November and December does appear to have originated at a sprouts farm in Urbana, IL.
        Tiny Greens Organic Farm was hit with a May 5 warning letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that discloses results of the environmental sampling that public health authorities completed during the Nov. 1, 2010 to Feb. 9, 2011 outbreak. FDA said it linked a Salmonella enteric serotype from the outbreak “to sprouts grown in your facility.” continues at link.

  9. The real risks to our food, in my opinion, are:
    1. Financial and credit system breakdown.
    2. Long, complex and international supply chains for all aspects of the food system.
    3. Fossil fuel price volatility, general price rise, and relentless resource depletion without adequate substitutes/alternatives.
    4. Long-term environmental changes that disrupt historic predictability in weather and water supplies and make planning and production more uncertain.
    Unfortunately, what we tend to get on this site is a myopic focus on relatively unimportant details that pit one ingroup against another.

    1. Jason,
      I fear you have confused food security with health threats. On the one hand, you have the risk of starvation. On the other hand, you have the risk of disease/death. These are two very different problems, with different solutions.

      1. While I find it great to discuss this outbreak and sort out why it happened, the discussion comes with a bunch of loaded issues where folks say things that in the broader context (listed above) I find a bit absurd. E.g., it is criminal to use manure as a fertilizer.
        Long and complex supply chains and hyper specialization are a big part of the problem here, not just the type of production system. Instead of seeing the big picture I see folks seeing blood and going for the kill because they perceive “the other side” as vulnerable. Doesn’t actually add a lot of credibility to the discussion.

        1. Jason,
          In any other context, knowingly exposing consumers to deadly substances would be criminal. Remember the Tylenol and anthrax incidents? I see no reason why organic agriculture should get a pass, especially when safer alternatives are available. Same thing with ‘raw milk’.

          1. In a narrow sense you could say artificial ammonia is safer. In a broader sense I find that doubtful. Your style of argument indicates that you chose not to see the big picture because you enjoy the opportunity to trash organic farming. This is rather unfortunate and is too typical of this site. If you want to reach the people in the middle style is very important. Of course we’ve been over all this before.

          2. Trace foodborne illness/death among consumers back to anhydrous, and that it poses a greater risk than pathogens, and I’ll concede your point. Regardless of the ‘size of the picture’ (whatever that might be), consumer health must in all cases be paramount.

Comments are closed.