Thursday, October 12, 2006
It’s been a long couple of months for organic consumers.
First, Earthbound Farm was tied to the fresh spinach blamed for a nationwide E. coli outbreak that has sickened hundreds and may have killed three. Just weeks later, the same strain of the deadly bacteria was blamed for sickening several after they drank unpasteurized organic milk produced by Fresno-based Organic Pastures. Most recently, an outbreak of botulism that has sickened four was linked to organic carrot juice produced by Bolthouse Farms and sold under a variety of names, including Earthbound Farm.
“If people are paying attention they’ll see that all of the packages indicated in E. coli events have been nonorganic.”
But experts say the notion that these recent incidents taint the entire industry is untrue, and add that organics are getting an unfair rap.
Peggy Miars is the executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers in Santa Cruz, one of the nation’s oldest and largest certifiers of organic products.
“I think if people are paying attention to the facts, if they listen to the FDA instead of the hype, they’ll see that at this time, all of the packages of salad indicated in E. coli events have been nonorganic,” she says.
The “hype” about organics being somehow unsafe began when Earthbound Farm, arguably the most popular brand of organic produce, was linked to the E. coli outbreak. In fact, Earthbound Farm’s organic spinach has not been found to be a culprit in the E. coli-tainted spinach. The company that Earthbound Farm opened in the mid ‘90s, Natural Selection Foods, packaged the conventional spinach found to be tainted with E. coli.
The issue of organic safety was further complicated when unpasteurized organic milk and organic carrot juice made people sick.
“All three things happened at the same time, which kind of brings it all to an unfortunate head,” Miars says.
Dennis Avery disagrees that it was a coincidence. Avery, the executive director for the Virginia-based Center for Global Food Issues, has published extensively on the subject of organics, most recently a book titled Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastics. He says organics are unsafe to consume.
“Frankly, I’ve been astounded at the extent and depth of the organic craze,” he says. “There’s never been a good reason to go organic. It’s a rich city fad. There’s never been any scientific evidence to prove it’s better for you.”
Naturally, Miars says otherwise. “There’s a rational debate to be had on both sides of the issue, but consuming fewer chemicals and toxins can only be healthier. Imagine what’s not going into the body.”
Kelli Takikawa manages Whole Foods in Monterey. She takes issue with the suggestion that organics are a fad. “Our customers come from all walks of life, rich and poor. It’s not a trend. It used to be, yes. But people are more informed about what they eat nowadays. Organics has become a way of life.”
Statistics support Takikawa. According to the Organic Trade Association, the organic industry has grown a consistent 15 percent to 21 percent annually since 1997. It’s now a $14.6 billion industry. The sales of nonfood organics like healthcare products, pet foods and cleaning supplies skyrocketed in 2005 with a 32.5 percent growth.
Whole Foods is now stocking bunch spinach but has not yet reintroduced bagged spinach. “We’re just playing it safe,” Takikawa says. “But our customers are getting frustrated. They’re saying, ‘Why haven’t you brought back bagged spinach? It’s safe.’ They want to know when someone’s going to finally come out and say, ‘This is not an organic issue.’ And it isn’t.”