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LEGAL ISSUES

Farmers' Goods Called Risky Foods

Research claims that produce are more likely to transmit food-born illnesses, bad news for food entrepreneurs.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a study this month on the top-ten riskiest foods that are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Coincidentally, the study found that the riskiest foods for foodborne-illness outbreaks, resulting from contamination of E. coli, Norovirus, or Salmonella, are also deemed some of the most nutritious foods and the livelihood of many small farms.

Based on federal data collected since 1990, the CSPI analysis found leafy greens, eggs, and tuna fish to be the three riskiest foods for bacteria contamination. Sprouts, tomatoes, berries, oysters, potatoes, cheese, and ice cream also made the list.

According to Sarah Klein, CSPI attorney and lead author of the study, this study was meant as a wake-up call for policy makers and an effort to get food safety legislation, in the form of the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed before 2010. "These are food items that are some of the most nutritious for us and many are American favorites, yet they've all been linked to repeated reports of foodborne illness," she said. "Consumers can't avoid these products, and they shouldn't, but they should be aware when they eat them."

Klein said that everybody has a role to play in food safety, and that role should be commensurate on a farm's or a manufacturer's food supply. She also pointed out that while the organic variety of risky foods often receives criticism, and is assumed to be the most dangerous, the CSPI found no data to suggest that there is a larger problem with organic products: "When CDC puts an outbreak in their database, it does not say whether or not it was from an organic product. We have no data to suggest that organic products are any more dangerous for foodborne illness."

Tom Strumolo, director of planning and policy for Greenmarket--the largest network of small and family-run farmers' markets in the country, many of which offer organic products--agreed that the most critical factor to take away from this study and pending legislation is the matter of food safety.

"Our farmers are preparing to upgrade their traceability records," he said.  "Now, these are small scale operations of 10 to 50 acres. It may be a bit more difficult or challenging for them to work with extension agents, but it's not a make or break composition."

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