The latest example of how even health-conscious eaters are not immune from foodborne illness outbreaks came with the recent recall of organic frozen berries contaminated with Hepatitis A. The prodÂucts were sold under the brand name of Townsend Farms at two large chains: Costco stores in the west and Harris Teeter stores.
The latest count from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is 87 people infected in eight states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Washington. Of these, 36 have been hospitalized.
According to the CDC, Hepatitis A “usually occurs when an infected food hanÂdler preÂpares food without appropriate hand hygiene.” However, the source of this parÂticÂuÂlar strain is still unclear, except that it probÂaÂbly did not origÂiÂnate in the United States.
This outbreak raises several imporÂtant questions about our food system.
Are companies duping consumers with “farmwashing”?
According to the fine print on the back label, shown on food safety attorÂney Bill Marler’s blog, the fruit came from around the world: Chile, Argentina and Turkey. The pomeÂgranÂate seeds processed in Turkey appear to be the culÂprit. (Marler is suing Townsend on behalf of the vicÂtims and just sent the comÂpany this demand letter)
But you couldn’t tell the interÂnaÂtional oriÂgins from the front of the packaging labeled “Organic Antioxidant Blend,” with the bucolic image of Townsend Farms and its warm and fuzzy tag line: “Since 1906, Field to Farm to Family.”
It seems at least one vicÂtim of the outÂbreak was fooled by the imagery. According to CBS News, Geoff Soza of California ate “a healthy breakÂfast of thawed frozen berries and Greek yogurt every mornÂing” but while “celebrating his 30th wedÂding anniverÂsary in Yellowstone National Park,” the 64-year-old wound up in the hosÂpiÂtal instead. At one point, things looked so seriÂous that the words “liver transplant” were uttered by a doctor.
Soza seemed shocked to learn his favorite berries were not from the Oregon farm depicted on the packaging. According to the story:
Healthy and health-conscious, the Sozas always inspect their foods and select organic produce. They were surÂprised to learn that some of the fruit from Townsend Farms of Fairview, Ore., was from outÂside the United States. But the packaging convinced the Sozas the fruit was all-American because it bears the slogans “Grower. Processor. Distributor.” and “Field to Farm to Family, since 1906.”
Soza’s wife put it plainly: “It was our disÂtinct impresÂsion that these are raised under U.S. standards, espeÂcially organic food stanÂdards.”
I asked Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchÂdog group, if he thought the Townsend label was confÂusing as to the product’s oriÂgins. “Yes, it’s deliberately deceptive, to make you think you’re buyÂing local fruit from the farm up the road. There are many examÂples of this. Often companies with the word “farm” in their name don’t even do any growing themÂselves, they just contract with farms, someÂtimes from all over the world. Or they just buy from broÂkers in the farms or an anonyÂmous source.”
How does this connect to food safety risks? While small, local farms are not immune, the difference is in the magÂniÂtude of the impact: with a small farm, any adverse impacts are only felt locally, but with globÂalÂizaÂtion, the potential hazards are spread far and wide, and to a much larger population.
Also, about the antioxidant claim on the package, registered dietitÂian Andy Bellatti tells me it’s pretty meaningless. “All whole, plant-based foods contain antioxidants. So, any combination of fruit can be an 'antioxidant blend' and what matters most is diversity of antioxidants, not just from berries.”
Can we trust organic labels on imported foods?
Among the most frequent questions I get regardÂing organic is “what about imported food; can we trust the stanÂdards in other counÂtries?” The Townsend berries sports the USDA organic seal, indiÂcatÂing that even though the mix conÂtains imported fruit, it still conÂforms to the high U.S-based organic standards.
As Food Safety News explains, imported foods are evalÂuÂated by organic certifying agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
Townsend Farms prodÂucts are certified as organic by both Oregon Tilth, a private third party certifier, and the Washington State Department of Agriculture. But how is it that berries grown in Turkey, Chile and Mexico can get packaged in Oregon and cerÂtiÂfied as organic by the stanÂdards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture?
The short answer to that quesÂtion lies in the fact that firms worldwide have the abilÂity to cerÂtify farms according to the standards set forth by the USDA. As long as a proper authority can verÂify a farm operÂates according to organic stanÂdards once a year, that farm can become USDA-certified organic whether it’s outÂside Indianapolis or Istanbul.
OK, but can we trust these foreign certifiers? Some watchÂdog groups such as Center for Food Safety and Cornucopia Institute have greater conÂfiÂdence in U.S. farms and U.S.-based organic cerÂtiÂfiÂcaÂtion than from imports. These groups and many others have grave reserÂvaÂtions about particular countries with an increasing presÂence in the U.S., particularly China and India.
How many sick people will it take to get feds to act?
Most imporÂtantly, this serious outbreak underscores once again, how the stalled food safety regulations, as mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act (enacted in 2011), are adversely impacting pubÂlc health.
The law, which numerÂous groups pushed hard for, manÂdates significant upticks in foreign inspecÂtions by the Food and Drug Administration, although how those increases will be funded remains a serious question. Additional import safeÂguards include givÂing FDA authorÂity to require certification for food comÂing from cerÂtain counÂtries as a condition of admission to the U.S.
But the required regÂuÂlaÂtions for how these preÂvenÂtive meaÂsures would be impleÂmented have been overÂdue for more than a year now. In April, a federal court agreed with the Center for Food Safety’s lawsuit that the Food and Drug Administration has failed to adhere to statuÂtory deadÂlines for final regulations.
The judge ordered FDA to work with CFS to subÂmit a new timeÂline for the rules, which the court would then require FDA to folÂlow.
George Kimbrell, senior attorney with Center for Food Safety, says this process is currently underway, which is the good news:
Congress required FDA to dramatically improve import safety. The court should soon set new deadÂlines for the regulations, and FDA will finally do the job Congress required of it and protect the American public from continued outbreaks.
The bad news is that while FDA continues to drag its feet, Americans conÂtinue to get sick. Whether it’s Hepatitis A in imported berries, listeria in imported cheese, or salmonella in imported papayas, our regulators have a lot more work to do to safeÂguard the food supÂply. Let’s hope it won’t take more illnesses to get them to take action.