Organic doesn't mean healthy

Hugh Pennington

Don’t think that because your salad sprouts are organic, grown on your window sill, and supposedly good for you, that they haven’t accumulated many food miles or are safe to eat raw. Compelling evidence published by the European Food Safety Authority yesterday points to fenugreek sprouts as the vector of the E. coli that caused the enormous German outbreak in May and June (more than 3000 cases, with 47 deaths) and a French outbreak at Bègles, near Bordeaux, in June. The only common factors in the outbreaks were genetically identical E. coli O104:H4 – and fenugreek from the same Egyptian source.

Fifteen thousand kilogrammes of organic fenugreek seeds, lot number 48088 (expiry date November 2011), left Egypt by sea in November 2009 in a sealed container. Offloaded at Antwerp, it went to Rotterdam by barge and travelled by road to a German distributor, arriving on 15 December. In February this year, 75 kg went to the sprout producer linked to the German outbreak. Four hundred kilogrammes went to a British seed supplier who in January this year sold 95 kg in 50g packets to a French distributor, who in turn supplied batches of between 5 and 125 packets to more than 200 outlets. Seeds from one packet were sprouted in a jam jar and eaten at an open day at a children's community centre in Bègles on 8 June. The sprouts went into cold carrot and cumin and courgette soups, and on crudités.

 E. coli O104:H4 is very virulent. Many victims have developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome (which causes kidney failure) and brain damage. A much greater proportion of the infected have developed these complications than is usual with the classical nasty E. coli, O157. It is quite likely that O104 is hot because it is a hybrid. It has the toxins that make O157 virulent coupled with many genes from enteroaggregative E. coli, a bacterium thought to be a common cause of diarrhoea in children in developing countries. Night soil on the fenugreek?


  • 7 July 2011 at 9:47pm
    Prof. Nic Lampkin says:
    Earlier today I posted a comment which suggested the original title to this piece 'Don't eat organic' represented a premature conclusion that organic food per se was in some way to blame for the E coli problems that Hugh Pennington outlines. Later, the title was changed and my comment was deleted. Yet the new title again makes a generic comment about organic food that is not justified by the evidence.

    Most of Hugh's blog is a fair reflection of the recently published EFSA report, which does identify that the most likely source of the serious E coli problems in Germany and France is a consignment of organic fenugreek seed from Egypt. But the following points are relevant whatever the title given to this piece:

    1. The EFSA report confirms that no contaminated seed has yet been found, and the contamination could have taken place at any point in the chain up to when it left the importer's warehouse.

    2. Under the EU organic regulations, which also apply to imports, organic producers are prohibited from using sewage sludge or other forms of human faeces (including night soil). The same restrictions do not apply to non-organic producers, so, if the contamintion happened on the farm, the problem described would be more likely to occur on a non-organic holding. If it happened on an organic holding, then this would have been either accidental or a regulatory infringement, not a typical organic farming practice.

    3. In reality, this is a serious food safety issue that could have affected any food producer, whether organic or not. While the investigators are continuing to look for the real source of the problem, not just the vector, it is inappropriate to attribute blame to a particular sector - far too much economic damage has been done to innocent producers already in this way.

    In a serious forum like this, one would hope that the need not just for robust evidence, but also for coherent identification of cause and effect relationships, would be recognised. It seems that there is still some way to go on this.

  • 10 July 2011 at 9:30am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    'Organic' doesn't mean 'healthy' but it doesn't mean 'unhealthy' either. If you take a look at the epidemics that originated from non-organic foods you will find that factory-farming is not too healthy either. Surely the argument must be for rigorous standards and fair prices to counter the activities of mass-producers, not labelling organic foods in a way that implies they are unhealthy. It's not the foods - it's the way that they are grown and transported that makes for danger.

  • 13 July 2011 at 4:19pm
    Johnman says:
    Here is another viewpoint, highlighting that it's not sprouts that are unhealthy nor is it organic that's unhealthy. It's ignorance and malpractice in any form of food production that's unhealthy: