Study: Recalls of organic food on the rise

Carrots_FreshPicked_blogAccording to new data from the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture, a sharp jump is being seen in the number of recalls associated with organic food products. So far this year, 7% of all food units recalled have been organic compared to 2% of those recalled last year. In 2012 and 2013, only 1% of total units of food recalled were organic.

Kevin Pollack, a vice president at Stericycle, said in a recent article that the growing consumer and corporate demand for organic ingredients was at least partly responsible for the increase.

“What’s striking is that since 2012, all organic recalls have been driven by bacterial contamination, like Salmonella, Listeria, and hepatitis A, rather than a problem with a label,” Pollack said. “This is a fairly serious and really important issue because a lot of consumers just aren’t aware of it.”

For that matter, the overall amount of food recalled because of suspected bacterial contamination has increased this year, adding to what has been an upward trend in food recalls since 2012, according to Stericycle, which predicts a 24% increase in the number of food units that will be recalled by the FDA this year.

The Organic Trade Association, however, took issue with Stericycle’s accounting of recalls, saying its own quick analysis of data from the FDA and the Department of Agriculture show the problem is less severe, with organic products accounting for 4.9% of recalls, in line with the percentage of organic food sold out of total retail sales of food.

“A key point to keep in mind is that an overall increase in organic recalls between 2012 and 2015 would not be surprising — not because organic food is less safe, but because of the dramatic increase in organic food sales and purchases that we’ve been seeing in this country,” Gwendolyn Wyard, senior director of regulatory and technical affairs at the trade group, said in the article.

“Sales of organic food in the U.S. have risen by almost 25% just since 2012, and the number of organic products on the market is increasing steadily as demand for organic increases,” she added. According to the association, sales of certified organic products hit $39 billion last year, up 11.3% from 2013.

Wyard also noted that food safety mechanisms had increased since 2012, with a corresponding increase in food recalls.

The article also states that a single large recall involving tens of thousands of products may cause distortions in the data. Stericycle counts every unit affected, while the trade association argues that it was really just a single recall.

For instance, organic spinach from one producer was recalled in March because of the possibility that it was contaminated by Listeria. The spinach was used by five brands, in more than 500,000 individual units.

Nonetheless, more consumers are buying food products that are either wholly organic or incorporate some organic ingredients, as more food companies incorporate such ingredients in their products.

Bill Marler, a lawyer in Washington state who is an expert on food safety issues, said in the article that the trend in organic food recalls reminded him of rising recalls of foreign products several years ago.

“People would get so excited when a product from overseas caused illness and injury, saying, ‘oh, it’s because of more imports from China or Mexico or wherever,’ ” he said. “I used to say it wasn’t a big deal because there wasn’t that much imported food, but now we are seeing more recalls related to foreign-produced food because there’s more of it on the market.”

“Is it a spike or a trend?” he said. “You have to watch what happens over time.”

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