Poison risk from organic imports

22 November 1999

Poison risk from organic imports

By FWi staff

IMPORTED organic vegetables harbour an increased risk of food poisoning, warns a leading microbiologist.

Professor Hugh Pennington believes there is a higher chance the E-coli bacterium could exist in crops grown in manure in Southern-Hemisphere countries.

Prof Pennington, who led the inquiry into the deaths of 20 Scottish pensioners from E coli 0157, says food safety systems are not always as stringent in these regions.

But leading organic importer Peter Segger says supermarkets insist on the same safety audits for all fresh produce, regardless of where they come from.

Prof Pennington told Radio 4s Farming Today programme that rapid transport systems around the globe meant bacteria could survive quite well.

“Unless you control at source how theyre produced and how theyre handled before they get exported, you are always running a risk.

“This is particularly so in countries where the food safety system and food safety laws are not followed as rigorously, as say in the Northern Hemisphere.”

Peter Segger, chairman of Organic Farm Foods, Britains largest distributor of imported and domestic organic food, refutes this entirely.

“Any supplier of fresh food to any British supermarket, conventional or organic, has to undertake a rigorous series of audits to make sure from the field to the shelf there is a rigorous system of control on every hygiene practice.

“There is exactly the same system of controls whether it is in Africa or Lincolnshire.”

But Professor Pennington said problems arose where there was a breakdown in the inspections system and people cut corners, enabling the bug to get through.

Prof Pennington said strict regulations on the use of manure in British organic farming were an excellent way of reducing the risk of e-coli, but was still unconvinced this eliminated it altogether.

This came as a survey for the Co-op supermarket chain revealed that fewer than one in five shoppers trust the government to tell the truth about the safety of food.

It also found that 62% of those questioned believed the food industry was more interested in profits than public safety.

Worries about issues such as genetically modified foods and pesticides had persuaded 39% to change their buying habits.

The survey of 1333 adults and 554 children also found that one in five bought organic foods. Another recent survey showed organic sales had increased by 40% in the past year.

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