After crippling Spanish agriculture with false allegations, organically-grown beansprouts are now believed to be the source of a massive E. coli outbreak originating in Germany. It infected over 3300 people, killed at least three dozen, and is being used to argue for more integrated EU laboratory and public health systems.
UPDATE: The characterisation of this new strain was efficient but the shambolic response of national public health agencies and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has been criticised in The Lancet: “-communication surrounding the outbreak has been haphazard at best, dismal at worst.”. The ECDC’s Director has responded. It is probable that neither the molecular characterisation nor the public health response was accredited.
As explained below, the EU requires all official food control laboratories to be ISO accredited. This outbreak shows that accrediting the management of tests is of no value when complex and non-standard situations arise. The cartel may argue that it does not accredit interpretation of tests or the public health response to test results. How relevant is this? The cartel does not accredit them because its members would then share the blame and discredit the accreditation brand when issues are legitimately complex or mishandled. Accreditation cannot cope efficiently with departures from SOPs. As well as the worthlessness of laboratory accreditation it shows the weakness of organic produce certification. Variety is a spanner in the works of accreditation.
“In looking at possible increased risk to safety from organic food consumption, reviews have found that although there are theoretical increased risk from microbiological contamination due to increased manure use as fertilizer from organisms like E. coli O157:H7 during organic produce production, there does not exist sufficient evidence of actual incidence of outbreaks that can be clearly tied to organic food production to draw any firm conclusions.”
Now we know with certainty. More regulation will come. And something similar will happen despite it.
An unpleasant outcome from the German romanticism that gave us the promise of organic purity and goodness.
Many will be thinking that the German nitrogen fertiliser business wasn’t so bad after all.
The organic movement arose in the 1940s in a reaction against the synthetic processes and mechanisation that enabled massive improvements in agricultural efficiency. Organic enthusiasm was popular in European facist movements. Jorian Jenks, a founding member of the charity the Soil Association, which began in 1946, was a senior member of the British Union of Fascists.
Evidence tends to be against benefits the organic movement’s claims. Its use of the word organic has nothing to do with organic chemistry (molecules containing carbon), but rather refers to a romantic ideal of holism that harks back to hylozoism, an ancient Greek view of nature as an organism.
Organic growing is distinct from private gardening and small-scale production because it is defined by the regulation of the industry through certification rather than by proven benefits. The commercial, impersonal scale of most modern organic food sets it apart from garden growing and arguably requires certification. Nevertheless, the Soil Association did not introduce such a scheme until 1967. As a charity, it needed a commercial subsidiary to administer the certification inspections that had been unnecessary for 20 years.
Does this sound familiar? Organic certification is an accreditation system similar to the wider quality cartel’s. Did you have trouble understanding why the ISO Quality Manual was so named? It was clear that it was not what enabled quality; instead it made possible systematic inspection. Organic is something of a distraction word just as quality is used by UKAS instead of inspection. Or bat is prefixed to nouns by Batman to show invention and ownership.
“The final point is this rather tetchy argument between UKROFS and UKAS. We have got a paper from UKAS suggesting that the Government might like to consider removing the accreditation role from UKROFS. Is that something that is really worth investigation?”
but failed in 2000 for the reason that
“UKAS provides an accreditation service for certification bodies operating in the food sector. Because of the potential for conflict of interest, UKAS is not allowed, under the internationally recognised standards to which it works, to certify organisations as well as accrediting bodies who themselves provide a certification service.”
As an agent of the EU, UKAS holds sway over all the UK’s official food testing laboratories which are imprisoned in the cartel’s system:
“UKAS has entered into an agreement with MAFF and DH which provides for the accreditation of official food control laboratories to demonstrate compliance with the requirements of the Official Control of Foodstuffs Directive (89/397/EEC), and the Additional Measures concerning the Official Control of Foodstuffs Directive (93/99/EEC).”
The United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) had tried to maintain its independence and refused to recognise UKAS. It got the chop in July 2003. This was said to be to avoid duplication and reduce costs from having more than one inspection body. UKAS has got used to the legislative elimination of any competition. The UK’s ten organic certification bodies are inspected annually by UKAS. You can read Soil Association Certification Ltd’s account of the cartel’s arrangements to enforce EC legislation and additional standards here.
Earlier, Simon Wright described his concerns about UKAS’s take-over of the role of UKROFS:
“What I feel most strongly about is the proposal that the certification accreditation function be taken away from UKROFS and given to UKAS. My first concern is that UKAS by its own admission knows very little about organic matters. Expert advisory committees will therefore be required, similar to the current UKROFS Technical and Certification committees. UKAS does not pay for these committees, so they are likely to be filled by representatives of large companies who can afford to subsidise their attendance. Currently members of UKROFS committees receive a modest attendance allowance and can claim the cost of their travelling. This means that the stakeholders such as consumers, vets and farmers can afford to have their say.
“My second concern about moving to UKAS is cost. The UKROFS review aimed to identify “efficiency savings”. Currently DEFRA allocates 263,000 per annum to UKROFS. Were UKAS to take over accreditation this sum could conceivably be reduced. However since UKAS charges around 760 per day for their services my suspicion is that the total cost of certification accreditation would increase, and this increase would be charged to certifying bodies who would in turn pass it on to licensees and ultimately to the organic consumer. Result : higher prices for UK organic food.
“My third concern is the lack of joined-up thinking. Since I joined the board of UKROFS most of my time has been spent working to help interpret and develop UK organic standards, working closely with the UK organic sector bodies. Handing over accreditation to UKAS means that the link between sector development and organic accreditation is lost.”
Mr. Mark Field: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether her Department uses bodies other than the United Kingdom Accreditation Service for the accreditation of certification bodies operating in the organic food sector.
Mr. Meacher: Currently the approval of organic certification bodies for the purposes of Council Regulation (EEC) 2092/91 is carried out by the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) in liaison with the Department. Consequent on the abolition of UKROFS in July 2003 new arrangements for approving the organic certification bodies are being put in place. These arrangements will involve UKAS, as the UK’s official provider of accreditation services, in assessing the bodies and advising Government on their compliance with requirements in the Council Regulation. UKAS is considering the scope for collaboration with other bodies who are involved in assessments against organic standards.
Mr. Mark Field: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what support her Department has given to the Accreditation Awareness Campaign run by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service.
Alun Michael: I refer my hon. Friend to the answer given on 1 March 2001, Official Report, column 731W, by the Minister of Sate for Trade and Industry (Mr. Johnson), UKAS is the sole body recognised by the Government for the accreditation of conformity assessment bodies in the United Kingdom. Defra uses UKAS accreditation and assessment services whenever it is appropriate to do so Defra has drawn attention to the role of UKAS and its contribution to increasing confidence in the food supply chain by providing assurance of the competence of inspection bodies operating in the food sector. Defra has commissioned work from UKAS in the areas of organic farming, global atmosphere and research and development.
Ah, the faddish trust parliamentarians put in the UK’s competition-free, one-size-fits-all accreditation provider!
But besides the ambition of UKAS there have been human deaths.
What was the accreditation failure by the cartel member in Germany that did not prevent this mass infection?
Or was microbiological safety outside the scope of organic certification since organic believers prefer to focus on theoretical problems of chemical contamination?
Which, if any, cartel member will take the fall for this mass fatality?
Or will the farmer be sacrificed to save the accreditation brand?
Is the UKAS premium worth paying if it cannot prevent deaths?
Who in the “quality” industry will be first to offer UKAS deprogramming services to its victims?
To assure everything nothing must be left uncontrolled. And even then real life sometimes re-emerges…