Food Safety 101

It was a food-safety issue that affected 26 states and caused a series of E. coli-related illnesses across the United States, including three deaths. Whether or not you’re a spinach lover was beside the point. Our country quickly became aware of the far-reaching implications of food contamination as it relates to our daily lives. Sadly, organic farms, farmers, and practices rapidly became the subject of speculation and accusations were made that the spinach in question must have come from an organic source. More recent studies have proven that this was not the case; however, it is important to and others passionate about the organic farming industry to educate consumers about food safety, specifically as it relates to the organic-farming industry.

What is E. coli?
E. coli is a naturally-occurring bacteria present in most animal intestines—including those of humans. In fact, there are about 100 strains of E. coli present in our intestines at any given time, most of which are beneficial.  However, the National Center for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has identified four harmful strains of E. coli that are known to produce toxins. The most dangerous of these is E. coli 0157:H7, a pathogenic strain isolated from manure from cattle, sheep, pigs, deer, and poultry. This strain can cause severe diarrhea and kidney damage and sometimes death. It is this strain that has been the subject of recent media attention.

How does E. coli contamination in food occur?
E. coli contamination usually happens later in the distribution chain or during food preparation at home. Most frequently, it is a consequence of eating undercooked or already-contaminated ground beef. It was not until recently that E. coli had been identified as the culprit of food-borne illness from produce either as a result of contaminated growing practices or contaminated washing practices in which produce comes into contact with E. coli-contaminated water. It is important to note that the E. coli scare extends beyond just spinach. Most recently, a commercial farmer in Iowa began voluntarily recalling beef due to a potential E. coli scare, and the FDA issued an advisory for potential botulism in carrot juice from a California–based producer.

Is cross-contamination from manure fertilizer a problem?
Both commercial and organic farmers use manure as a fertilizer, posing potential concern to consumers. However, the guidelines set forth by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 and the National Organic Program (NOP) rule of December 2000 mandate much-stricter guidelines for organic farmers. In fact, no other agricultural regulation in the United States imposes such strict control of the use of manure as those imposed on the organic produce farming industry.

Are organic products more likely to be contaminated?
The answer to this question is a resounding NO. Because organic farmers are under much-more stringent guidelines, it is important to note that many organic produce and meat products are quite possibly less likely to become contaminated or cross-contaminated during the harvest and distribution processes. To affirm this fact, the CDC issued the following statement:
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention… has not conducted any study that compares or quantitates the specific risk for infection with Escherichia coli O157:H7 and eating either conventionally grown or organic/natural foods. CDC recommends that growers practice safe and hygienic methods for producing food products, and that consumers, likewise, practice food safety within their homes (e.g., thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables).”

What can I do to make sure my food is safe?
To ensure food safety, there are a few simple rules you can follow:

  • Wash your hands before and after cooking. Dry them with a paper towel. This is the most-effective way to avoid food poisoning.
  • Always buy the freshest meats and produce available. Examine the food you’re purchasing to make sure it is not bruised, old, or moldy.
  • Keep produce and meats separate in your kitchen and cooking spaces.
  • Thaw frozen meats in a pan on the lowest shelf of your refrigerator to keep meat juices from dripping onto other foods.
  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect all cooking areas before and after raw meat handling, including countertops, cutting boards, utensils, pots, and pans.
  • Refrigerate perishable foods as soon as possible.
  • Cook all seafood to 145 degrees F.
  • Don’t eat foods that contain raw eggs.

Education and Awareness
Education and awareness are your two best tools in food safety and food-illness prevention. Make sure that you educate yourself on the origins of the food you buy and consume. Knowing where your food comes from and making sure that it is properly handled and prepared from harvest to the kitchen table will help eliminate food-borne illnesses and increase food safety in your home.

For more information on E. coli and other food-related illnesses, take a look at the following sites: