Dangers of organic produce: the German beansprouts kill at least 48 in 2011

For reference, the May-June 2011 food poisoning outbreak killed at least 48 (in Germany; I’ve not researched the outcomes of affected travelers). The German panic was caused by organic bean sprouts – the Lower Saxony farm has been shut down. The lethality of the sprouts is attributed to an enteroaggregative E. coli (EAEC) strain that had acquired the genes to produce Shiga toxins.

Here is a snippet of the Wikipedia reference “2011 Germany E. coli O104:H4 outbreak“:

Epidemiological fieldwork suggested fresh vegetables were the source of infection. The agriculture minister of Lower Saxony identified an organic farm[2] in Bienenbüttel, Lower Saxony, Germany, which produces a variety of sprouted foods, as the likely source of the E. coli outbreak.[3] The farm has since been shut down.[3] Although laboratories in Lower Saxony did not detect the bacterium in produce, a laboratory in North Rhine-Westphalia later found the outbreak strain in a discarded package of sprouts from the suspect farm.[4] A control investigation confirmed the farm as the source of the outbreak.[5] On 30 June 2011 the German Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (BfR) (Federal Institute for Risk Assessment), an institute of the GermanFederal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection), announced that seeds of fenugreek imported from Egypt were likely the source of the outbreak.[6]

In addition to Germany, where 3,785 cases and 48 deaths had been reported by the end of the outbreak,[7] a handful of cases were reported in several countries including Switzerland,[7] Poland,[7] the Netherlands,[7] Sweden,[7] Denmark,[7]the UK,[7][8] Canada[9] and the USA.[9][10] Essentially all affected people had been in Germany or France shortly before becoming ill.

David Tribe has been following the case, including here and here, where I obtained this update:

The E. coli (O104) outbreak is responsible for 48 deaths in Germany and one in Sweden. The total number of cases reported in the EU, Norway and Switzerland is 4,178.

As always, David offers thorough references. One from July 7, 2011 by Maryn McKenna that is accessible to the non-scientist is “E. coli: A Risk for 3 More Years From Who Knows Where”.

UK food agency report: organic food is not healthier

New news for me, perhaps old news for you – the results were announced by FSA in July 2009. the FSA announcement reads:

An independent review commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shows that there are no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food. The focus of the review was the nutritional content of foodstuffs.

Gill Fine, FSA Director of Consumer Choice and Dietary Health, said: ‘Ensuring people have accurate information is absolutely essential in allowing us all to make informed choices about the food we eat. This study does not mean that people should not eat organic food. What it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.

‘The Agency supports consumer choice and is neither pro nor anti organic food. We recognise that there are many reasons why people choose to eat organic, such as animal welfare or environmental concerns. The Agency will continue to give consumers accurate information about their food based on the best available scientific evidence.’

The study, which took the form of a ‘systematic review of literature’, was carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). LSHTM’s team of researchers, led by Alan Dangour, reviewed all papers published over the past 50 years that related to the nutrient content and health differences between organic and conventional food. This systematic review is the most comprehensive study in this area that has been carried out to date.

The FSA commissioned this research as part of its commitment to giving consumers accurate information about their food, based on the most up-to-date science.

This research was split into two separate parts, one of which looked at differences in nutrient levels and their significance, while the other looked at the health benefits of eating organic food. A paper reporting the results of the review of nutritional differences has been peer-reviewed and published today by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Dr Dangour, of the LSHTM’s Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit, and the principal author of the paper, said: ‘A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance. Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.’