I've spent the last few years justifying paying more for organic food for several reasons. It's an important investment in our earth's future. It's kinder to farm workers. And usually, it operates on a smaller scale, which makes things like quality control and safety more manageable. But organics are getting bigger and bigger -- and we're starting to see the problems of going giant.
This week First Class Foods announced a recall of 34,373 pounds of organic beef originating from a plant in Hawthorne, California. Organic beef recall!?! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Fortunately no sicknesses have been reported. An E. coli contamination was discovered during an inspection (which is why inspections matter!), but the beef has already shipped to California, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Washington state, and Wisconsin under the labels "Nature's Harvest" and "Organic Harvest." (Look for the mark "EST 18895" or date stamps 10341 and 10350 if you happen to have those brands in your home.)
As we've already seen with the organic spinach contamination of a few years ago, organic is no guarantee for food safety. If you're big, you're big, and the bigger you are, the higher the risk for contamination -- and the wider the spread of contamination. Food corporations love to get big (big=more money), even organic companies. When we pay more for organics, there's an implicity assumption that we're also getting higher safety standards -- but it ain't necessarily so.
Here's what jumps out to me from this story:
- The beef is organic, but it still came from grain-fed cattle. Farmers and researchers have been debating whether or not grain encourages the growth of E. coli, but for now I'm going with grass-finished.
- The beef was shipped all the way across the country. When you buy from a smaller producer, your meat is traveling a shorter distance. And if you actually know your farmer -- and can email her! -- the accountability gets pretty darn high.
- Especially when it comes to ground meats, big is risky. One animal with E. coli can contaminate tens of thousands of pounds of beef. When you buy from a small producer, animals get slaughtered one at a time. If there is contamination, it's affecting maybe 100 pounds of ground beef.
- Inspections matter, but we need to get faster. It's great that this contamination was discovered by an inspection rather than an unfortunate customer, but why did the recall happen after the meat got out into the marketplace? Hopefully the newly signed food safety bill can narrow that gap.
So I begin 2011 a little sadder but wiser. Organics, you disappointed me. I expect more of you. But this has also renewed my commitment to small, local producers.
Image via yurilong/Flickr.