Organic Connections, the magazine of Natural Vitality, explores the latest foodborne illness outbreak--and what it says about our food system.

6 Min Read
How does hepatitis end up in organic berries?

Guest post by Michele Simon, Eat Drink Politics—Cross-posted from Center for Food Safety

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 prod­ucts 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 han­dler pre­pares food without appropriate hand hygiene.” However, the source of this par­tic­u­lar strain is still unclear, except that it prob­a­bly did not orig­i­nate in the United States.

This outbreak raises several impor­tant questions about our food system.

Are companies duping consumers with “farmwashing”?

According to the fine print on the back label, shown on food safety attor­ney Bill Marler’s blog, the fruit came from around the world: Chile, Argentina and Turkey. The pome­gran­ate seeds processed in Turkey appear to be the cul­prit. (Marler is suing Townsend on behalf of the vic­tims and just sent the com­pany this demand letter)

But you couldn’t tell the inter­na­tional ori­gins 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 vic­tim of the out­break was fooled by the imagery. According to CBS News, Geoff Soza of California ate “a healthy break­fast of thawed frozen berries and Greek yogurt every morn­ing” but while “celebrating his 30th wed­ding anniver­sary in Yellowstone National Park,” the 64-year-old wound up in the hos­pi­tal instead. At one point, things looked so seri­ous 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 sur­prised to learn that some of the fruit from Townsend Farms of Fairview, Ore., was from out­side 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 dis­tinct impres­sion that these are raised under U.S. standards, espe­cially organic food stan­dards.” 

I asked Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, an organic watch­dog group, if he thought the Townsend label was conf­using as to the product’s ori­gins. “Yes, it’s deliberately deceptive, to make you think you’re buy­ing local fruit from the farm up the road. There are many exam­ples of this. Often companies with the word “farm” in their name don’t even do any growing them­selves, they just contract with farms, some­times from all over the world. Or they just buy from bro­kers in the farms or an anony­mous source.”

How does this connect to food safety risks? While small, local farms are not immune, the difference is in the mag­ni­tude of the impact: with a small farm, any adverse impacts are only felt locally, but with glob­al­iza­tion, the potential hazards are spread far and wide, and to a much larger population.

Also, about the antioxidant claim on the package, registered dietit­ian 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.”

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Can we trust organic labels on imported foods?

Among the most frequent questions I get regard­ing organic is “what about imported food; can we trust the stan­dards in other coun­tries?” The Townsend berries sports the USDA organic seal, indi­cat­ing that even though the mix con­tains imported fruit, it still con­forms to the high U.S-based organic standards.

As Food Safety News explains, imported foods are eval­u­ated by organic certifying agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Townsend Farms prod­ucts 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 cer­ti­fied as organic by the stan­dards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture?

The short answer to that ques­tion lies in the fact that firms worldwide have the abil­ity to cer­tify farms according to the standards set forth by the USDA. As long as a proper authority can ver­ify a farm oper­ates according to organic stan­dards once a year, that farm can become USDA-certified organic whether it’s out­side Indianapolis or Istanbul.

OK, but can we trust these foreign certifiers? Some watch­dog groups such as Center for Food Safety and Cornucopia Institute have greater con­fi­dence in U.S. farms and U.S.-based organic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion than from imports. These groups and many others have grave reser­va­tions about particular countries with an increasing pres­ence in the U.S., particularly China and India.

How many sick people will it take to get feds to act?

Most impor­tantly, 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 pub­lc health.

The law, which numer­ous groups pushed hard for, man­dates significant upticks in foreign inspec­tions by the Food and Drug Administration, although how those increases will be funded remains a serious question. Additional import safe­guards include giv­ing FDA author­ity to require certification for food com­ing from cer­tain coun­tries as a condition of admission to the U.S.

But the required reg­u­la­tions for how these pre­ven­tive mea­sures would be imple­mented have been over­due 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 statu­tory dead­lines for final regulations.

The judge ordered FDA to work with CFS to sub­mit a new time­line for the rules, which the court would then require FDA to fol­low.

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 dead­lines 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 con­tinue 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 safe­guard the food sup­ply. Let’s hope it won’t take more illnesses to get them to take action.


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