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Recalls of organic food on the rise, report says

New data collected by Stericycle, a company that handles recalls for businesses, shows a sharp jump in the number of recalls of organic food products.

Organic food has accounted for 7 percent of all food units recalled so far this year, compared with 2 percent last year, according to data from the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture that Stericycle uses to compile its quarterly report on recalls.

In 2012 and 2013, only 1 percent of total units of food recalled were organic.

Kevin Pollack, a vice president at Stericycle, said the growing consumer and corporate demand for organic ingredients was at least partly responsible for the increase.

"What's striking is that since 2012, all organic recalls have been driven by bacterial contamination, like salmonella, listeria and hepatitis A, rather than a problem with a label," Pollack said. "This is a fairly serious and really important issue because a lot of consumers just aren't aware of it."

For that matter, the overall amount of food recalled because of suspected bacterial contamination has increased this year, adding to what has been an upward trend in food recalls since 2012, according to Stericycle, which predicts a 24 percent increase in the number of food units that will be recalled by the FDA this year.

The Organic Trade Association took issue with Stericycle's accounting of recalls, saying its own quick analysis of recall data from the FDA and the Agriculture Department shows the problem is less severe, with organic products accounting for 4.9 percent of recalls, in line with the percentage of total retail sales of food.

Gwendolyn Wyard, senior director of regulatory and technical affairs at the trade group, also noted that food safety mechanisms had increased since 2012, with a corresponding increase in food recalls.

For instance, organic spinach from one producer was recalled in March because of the possibility that it was contaminated by listeria. The spinach was used by five brands, including Amy's Kitchen and Costco, in more than 500,000 individual units. No one has yet claimed to be sick from eating any of the products containing the spinach, said Bill Marler, a Washington lawyer who is an expert on food safety issues.

According to the association, sales of certified organic products hit $39 billion last year, up 11.3 percent from 2013.

Marler noted that a single large recall involving tens of thousands of products may cause distortions in the data.

"Is it a spike or a trend?" he said. "You have to watch what happens over time."

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