By Joseph Hart, Experience Life
Tree of life. Dancing Star. Mojo. Karma. They sound like workshop sessions at a 1968 “be-in,” but, in fact, they are just a few of the natural and organic food brands yanked from grocery shelves during last spring’s salmonella outbreak.
The poisoned peanuts at the root of the problem, distributed by the now-infamous Peanut Corporation, represent one of the most widespread outbreaks of foodborne illness in recent history: More than 700 cases of salmonella, including nine deaths, have been linked to nuts processed by the company. Victims have filed lawsuits; Congress has given its executives the third degree; consumers across the nation have dumped tons of peanut-containing products into waste bins.
What the headlines didn’t reveal, however, is that the Georgia facility was certified to process organic foods. And among the products that passed through the plant were high-profile natural brands such as Clif Bar and a number of other health-oriented products featured at natural grocers and health-food stores.
This fact makes the peanut recall even more disturbing for health-conscious consumers who may have assumed that their selective buying habits kept them safe. After all, part of the appeal of organic foods is that they are carefully formulated and crafted: free of pesticides, chemicals and genetic engineering. But as the Peanut Corporation has demonstrated, the organic safety zone doesn’t necessarily extend to foodborne illness.
“The standards that protect us from pesticide residue are not protecting us from pathogens,” says Sarah Klein, a staff attorney for the food safety division of the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Science in the Public Interest. “People confuse the words quality and safety. But there’s no reason — none — to do so.”
The Peanut Corporation is only the latest case to prove her point. Among the more high-profile recalls: Thousands of packages of Veggie Booty, an “all-natural” snack food, were recalled in 2007 due to salmonella contamination. In 2006, Dagoba (owned by Hershey) recalled several organic chocolate-bar varieties because of high levels of lead in the cacao; the same year, Natural Selection Foods, which supplies salad greens to dozens of organic brands, recalled spinach tainted with E. coli.
Every year, roughly 76,000 people in the United States take ill from poisoned food. And while organics may represent only a small number of these cases, and may, in fact, receive more oversight in certain aspects of their sourcing and production, the high level of trust that we carry into the natural foods store may not always be entirely warranted.
So what are the loopholes that currently allow dangerous pathogens to make their way to our dinner plates? What are best-in-class food brands doing to prevent future problems? And how can we protect ourselves and our families from contaminated foods that are slipping past our trusted gatekeepers?
The good news is that we needn’t wait for Congress to rewrite the food safety laws. By learning more about where our food comes from and how it can become contaminated, we can minimize our risks, starting today.
Next: Tips for Staying Safe