What was the source of the massive E. coli outbreak in Germany? We still don't know. Right now German officials are no longer pinning blame on Spanish cucumbers and are instead testing sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany. But few of the people who got sick remember eating sprouts, so it's still a mystery.
At any rate, I got to wondering about the relative safety of organic foods -- and also foods from small, local farms. I spoke with food poisoning lawyer Bill Marler, an expert on food safety featured in the documentary film Food Inc.
What Marler told me surprised me. Not only do we need to rethink the idea of organic farms being safer, we also shouldn't assume small, local farms are risk-free. And you should definitely rethink the idea of eating raw sprouts at all!
It turns out that when it comes to contamination, sprouts are a special case. First of all, the same growing conditions that are ideal for growing sprouts are also ideal for growing bacteria. Once contaminated, you can't wash the bacteria off of sprouts. In fact, the FDA considers eating raw sprouts on the same level of risk as eating raw beef -- not medium rare burgers, raw beef. They recommend children and elderly people avoid eating raw sprouts at all, even sprouts you grow yourself.
So what if the sprouts come from an organic grower -- or from a small grower at your farmers' market? It's actually very difficult to tell whether a sprout contamination comes from bad water or bad seeds. And the sprout market is so small that almost all growers -- organic, conventional, big, small -- get their seeds from the same few suppliers. It's not like organic or small growers are necessarily sprouting from special, safer seeds.
So organic or small and local sprouts are not inherently safer than conventional sprouts from large growers. "Bacteria doesn't know the difference between a small farm and a larger farm," Marler says. "But if you're looking at relative risk, eating locally does reduce the risk that your food will get contaminated by other foods in the distribution channel -- just not to zero."
What makes larger farms more dangerous is the way they combine contaminated crops with other food and the larger reach that they have. Large food companies will often combine foods from different farms and locations into one package. Your bag of mixed greens could include leaves from a contaminated farm, but it will be hard to figure out which greens from which farm are contaminated.
Once those foods are combined and packaged, they may get shipped anywhere across the country. So the larger the company, the wider the outbreak could spread, making more people sick and making it harder to trace the contamination.
There are many good reasons to support organic and small, local farms. Those are always my first two choices. But it also pays to know the risks.
Image via therealbrute/Flickr