The double food safety standard in organic food production
organic food organic food safety
Most people would agree that electric cars are more environmentally-friendly than normal cars, but what if suddenly the traffic-lights didn’t apply for electric cars and they didn’t have to stop when the light turns red? Would people be comfortable driving in the traffic then?
As a food safety auditor with more than 20 years in the industry, this is how I view organic food production. I think there is a safety problem.
As I see it there are two reasons why it is difficult to discuss this subject.
The first is that there are so many different concepts and perceptions among people about what organic food really is.
The second reason is all the inconsistencies that exist in the production of food products that are marked organic.
Put in a different way, what is accepted in organic food production would not always be accepted in food production working with today’s common and proven GFSI based food safety standards.
What organic food is and isn’t:
There are many noble reasons for consumers to buy organic products, however, I can`t help asking myself how they know what they get. A consumer who prefers the organic alternative probably believes one or more of the following statements to be true:
- The food is more nutritious
- The production methods are less contaminating
- The impact of the farming methods is less harmful to the environment
- The products are safer
- The products are produced closer to the consumers
- There are no additives in the food
- The packaging is more recyclable
- Fair trade conditions
As far as I know there is no worldwide definition of what organic food is. This means that what the consumer, the producer and the legislator talk about organic products they can have very different things in mind. It would also be interesting to hear from the producer’s finance and the marketing department in this discussion. The consumer is prepared to pay a premium for the organic products, so marketing plays a big role in this. And, don’t forget about the legal departments and the agencies. The agencies must agree about what organic products are not only with the food industry in their country but with all the agencies all around the world. If it turns out that what the consumer believes about organic food is false, the consequences are not necessarily so severe.
The real problem is when it is about food safety.
The problem with double food safety standard:
Let’s go back to the example with the electric cars that don’t have to stop at the red light. Imagine that this rule only applies to some electric cars, not to all, and that the rule only applies in some cities, not in all. You would not feel safe driving under these circumstances. This is what happens with organic food because of the lack of common standards and legislation.
Here are a few examples of what I have seen in different categories in different markets around the world:
- Organic strawberry marmalade with a higher sugar content than the normal alternative. Ok, this is not a safety problem, it is rather a health issue.
- The organic marmalade alternative uses pasteurized bulk fruit shipped thousands of kilometers and stored up to 18 months in a foreign market before it is shipped back, processed and stored again. At the same time the “normal” marmalade is made with local fruit from the crop of the harvest the same year. Then it is shipped from the local farmer to the factory where it is processed and stored.
In farming there are minimum distance regulations for where to plant organic seed in the fields to avoid cross contamination of pesticides. In practice the wind carries pesticides that are sprayed in one field over large distances to the next field. The result is that organic production test positive for some specific pesticides which can be seen in external accredited labs. Of course, this does not mean that it is not safe, the levels can be below the EFSA risk assessed maximum. The problem is that the tests (expensive, and in the external accredited labs), are being done by the suppliers (that sells the organic raw material), from a non-random sample, and not statistically significant numbers of samples.
In this link there are a number of examples of recalls regarding poor microbiology practices in organic production: https://foodpoisonin...tionally-grown/
This doesn’t happen at all in the same scale in traditional production.
My view as a professional auditor is that when it comes to food safety there are risks that are not adequately controlled in the production of food products that are marked organic. Part of the problem is the lack of common standards and legislation all the way from local to international level. Furthermore, the standards and legislation that exists does not include basic GMP’s and HACCP, only traceability tests.
This is most urgent to fix because it is about the safety of the consumer. There is a lot of best practice and proven food safety standards that can be directly applied to organic food production.
About the Author:
Leila J Burin, PhD Food Chemistry.
Lead Auditor in BRC, IFS, FSSC 22000, etc. Academic Coordinator in “Portal de Inocuidad” (www.portaldeinocuidad.com).
I work as a food safety auditor since more than 20 years. I started my career in Latin America and for the last 10 years I have been working in Europe. I have a scientific background with a PhD in Chemistry and over the years I works with most standards and categories in the food industry such as HEINZ, BRC, IFS, FSSC22000, SQMS, LIDL, and several others. Since 2010 I am also the Training Coordinator for “Portal de Inocuidad” which is an on-line service for Spanish speaking food safety professionals.