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Feds Say Organic Food Not Safer Than Food Grown Conventionally


The nation's food supply continues to be plagued by outbreaks of bacteria like salmonella and E. coli. Safety concerns are prompting some consumers to turn to organic and locally-produced food.

— The nation's food supply continues to be plagued by outbreaks of bacteria like salmonella and E. coli. Safety concerns are prompting some consumers to turn to organic and locally-produced food.

At a production facility in Oceanside, a machine prepares boxes of fresh gourmet mushrooms for shipment.

Golden Gourmet Mushrooms sends its products to restaurants all over the country. The company's Steve Farrar shows off one of the biggest sellers. It's called a King Trumpet mushroom. It has a long, thick stalk.

"It's a very meaty mushroom," says Farrar. "It's an excellent substitute for meat; it grills very well, fairly mild flavor."

Golden Gourmet is a certified organic producer, processor, and distributor. Its mushrooms are grown in a modern warehouse in San Marcos. By the time they get to Oceanside, they're wrapped in plastic and stored in coolers.

Even so, Farrar is constantly concerned about contamination.

"It can be a death warrant for a company, to get a contaminated product there, somebody gets sick on it," Farrar points out. "Not only the liability issues involved, but the publicity, and people just lose trust in you."

Organic food is now a $20 billion industry in the U.S. Consumers like organic products in part because they're grown without chemicals and pesticides. A growing number of restaurants are buying organic food and purchasing items from local farmers whose growing practices they trust.

At the Linkery Restaurant in North Park, nearly all of the food comes from Southern California farms.

In the kitchen, owner Jay Porter describes some of the items.

"Those are getting ready for the burger plate, the plate you see with the chips," Porter says. "Those are gonna come out with a hamburger. Grass fed, pastured beef from a farmer we know. And we grind it, we put it on a roll we make ourselves, with some greens from Barry out here in Escondido. We use pastured chicken eggs from one of our farms, and we top it with that, and local cheese from here, outside in Temecula."

Porter believes meat from small suppliers is much less likely to be tainted with harmful bacteria than meat from giant cattle farms.

"And the same thing's true with produce, you know," says Porter. "When we buy produce from small farms, if we know the farmers, we know that they're taking care of their food. They're emotionally invested in how that food comes out, their reputations are at stake."

And Porter says locally produced and organic food tastes better.

While that may be so, the Food and Drug Administration says there's no evidence that organic food is any safer than conventionally grown food.

In fact, earlier this year the FDA recalled some hydroponically grown alfalfa sprouts because of possible salmonella contamination. The agency also recently recalled a brand of brown organic eggs for the same reason.

Doctors say no matter how food is grown or where it comes from, it can become contaminated by the time you eat it.

"Whether or not it's in the field where the produce is harvested, or whether or not it's the kitchen worker that has the organism and is contaminating the food. It could be anywhere." Dr. Edward Paredez is a gastroenterologist in San Diego. He treats a lot of people with food poisoning.

Paredez says the source of the illness is often hard to find.

"The incubation period for most of the food poisoning bacteria or virus can be anywhere from a few hours to several days," Paredez says. "So tracking back every thing a person's eaten for up to a week, often times makes it very difficult to find out exactly where the contamination occurred."

Federal officials say about 76 million Americans suffer from food poisoning each year. And whether the food that makes people sick comes from organic or traditional growers, product recalls are frequent.

The House recently passed a bill that would require the FDA to improve its ability to trace food products. Supporters say a better system would more quickly identify the source of food-borne illnesses.

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