June 7, 2000 - National Organic Program

In response to the notice published March 13, 2000, in the Federal Register, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) would like to comment on the proposed rule to establish the National Organic Program, under the direction of the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The American Society for Microbiology is the premier educational and scientific society dedicated to the promotion of the microbiological sciences and their application for the common good. The Society represents more than 42,000 microbiologists, including scientists in academic, industrial and government institutions working in a variety of areas, including medical, applied, molecular biology and genetics, environmental and food microbiology, and public health.

Consumers perceive organic foods as better tasting, more healthful, and grown using environmentally friendly methods. The USDA has for more than 90 years used a "seal of approval" for meat and poultry that implies safe food. Although the proposed USDA organic food "seal of approval" connotes particular production and processing practices that are not necessarily based on sound science, and is not intended to represent the safety of the food, consumers through past experience will assume the organic seal of approval implies the food is safe. ASM is concerned that the USDA organic foods' seal will be perceived by consumers as an assurance of both safety and quality. Before this conclusion can be drawn a comprehensive survey of organic foods for foodborne pathogens is needed to evaluate the safety of such foods.

Organic foods are broadly defined as foods grown and processed without chemicals that will harm the land and water. Hence, manure instead of synthetic chemicals is used as a principal fertilizer for growing organic produce. The proven association of foodborne pathogens with both fresh produce and manure raises concerns regarding the microbiological safety of fruits and vegetables grown in soil fertilized by manure. Research is needed to identify conditions for the safe use of manure in fruit and vegetable production. In addition, copper, a heavy metal, is allowed in production and its use need not be identified in the final product. Studies on the microbiological safety of organic foods are limited. Available data on pathogen and copper prevalence indicate that organic foods are no safer than, and may not be as safe as, conventionally grown foods.

Should organic foods be determined to be less safe than conventionally grown foods based on microbiological considerations, then antimicrobial treatments are needed to reduce the risk to human health of eating organic foods, especially those that are eaten raw or undercooked. Food irradiation is a powerful food safety tool that helps eliminate harmful microorganisms without the use of heat. Food irradiation has been approved for use by over 35 governments around the world. More than 40 food products have been approved for irradiation worldwide. Food irradiation could be a valuable treatment to increase the safety of organic foods and should not be excluded from the organic food rule.

Similarly, biotechnology can be used to increase the microbiological safety of foods. Through genetic modification, produce may be selected to express natural antimicrobials that reduce the threat of foodborne pathogens. Excluding genetically modified foods from the organic food rule greatly reduces the tools available to increase the microbiological safety of a category of foods that are of potentially greater risk to human health than conventionally grown foods.

Thus, ASM proposes the USDA explicitly include in its seal of approval, a disclaimer that the food in question does not meet safety standards. It is disingenuous to not provide such information. The seal could simply say, within it or surrounding it, "No implied safety standards". Not to do so is an invitation to legal assault on the agency with the occurrence of food-borne illness, including those causing direct illness, as well as antibiotic-resistant organisms.

The ASM is pleased to have the opportunity to provide comments in response to the proposed rule for the National Organic Program and hopes that these comments and recommendations provide assistance.