Health scares and hard facts

G Magazine (issue #22, September/October 2009)

Proponents of organic food say it's healthier and safer than conventional produce. Detractors claim it comes with health risks to the consumer.

wash food

To make your food safer, wash all your fruits and vegetables thoroughly in running water, even if they're labelled 'pre-washed' and wait until just before you eat to do this.

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A child of the 70s, I grew up with the backyard vegie patch, bush blackberries and I bought delicious garden tomatoes from the Italian lady up the road. My mum even grew the neighbourhood's biggest strawberries after, quite scandalously, using the water she had soaked our dirty nappies in as a fertiliser.

However, now a mother in the 2000s, I am torn between giving my kids the healthiest, most natural diet I can - much like the one I had - and protecting them from some of the all-natural nasties out there. I am not a particularly cautious mother. Just experienced.

Last year our three-year-old son ingested E. coli bacteria from infected pork. He developed a rare complication called haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and spent five months in hospital, had more than 16 blood transfusions and part of his bowel removed, spent eight months on dialysis and is still in kidney and pancreatic failure. He's currently on the list for a kidney transplant.

Now, we don't know whether the meat our son ate was organic or not - it was at a street party for 250 people, and if the meat had been cooked for longer any bacteria would have been killed.

But there's nothing like a life-and-death confrontation with food to make you do your research, and what I found was an eye-opener: food labelled 'organic' or 'all-natural' may be healthier on one hand, but it does not necessarily mean it's 'safer'.

In the effort to make products as natural as possible, and to retain nutrients and keep flavours close to their original form, organic and natural manufacturers often eschew common preservation methods such as pasteurising and adding synthetic preservatives. While this means the environment and consumers are not exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals, it's still important for us to be vigilant with this food and its preparation.

"There is little conclusive evidence to suggest organic foods are safer or better than conventional foods [when it comes to bacteria]," says microbiologist Narelle Fegan, from Food Science Australia.

"If consumers are making a choice about whether to buy organic or conventional foods, then their decision should not be based on [that] assumption." So how do we choose, and what are the dangers?

Food-borne bacteria

In 2007, according to the Australian Government food disease initiative, OzFoodNet, 266 Australians were hospitalised and five died due to food-borne outbreaks. There are five microbes that tend to be the worst offenders: E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella, Campylobacter and a group of viruses called caliciviruses, including Shigella.

In the last decade as the organic food industry has boomed, some critics have warned that organic fruit and vegetables are especially susceptible to bacterial contamination, because organic farming practices favour manure (where bacteria can thrive) as a fertiliser.

It's an argument that seems reasonable at first glance, but has quite a few holes on closer inspection. A United Nations report, "Food Safety and Quality as Affected by Organic Farming", points out that manure is used as fertiliser in conventional as well as organic agriculture, and that although there's no question that animal manure can harbour nasties, "properly treated manure or biosolids are effective and safe fertilisers".

So how do you know if your organic supplier has done the right thing?

The key is certification. Organic certification bodies have strict standards on every process that happens from the farm to your table, including how manure must be composted and how long before harvest it can safely be applied.

Holly Vyner, general manager of the Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA), says that "certified organic [means] the product has been grown, handled, packaged and distributed avoiding risk of contamination to the point of sale." Importantly, she notes, with organic certification, "full traceability is maintained along the chain".

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