The lone voice of horticultural reason

“Organically produced food is safer than conventionally produced food”

Don’t bet on it – the odds are not in your favor. The recent, tragic outbreak of salmonella in products with peanuts was traced back to the Texas and Georgia plants of a company that had federal organic certification. As reported in the March 4, 2009 New York Times, “although the rules governing organic food require health inspections and pest-management plans, organic certification has nothing to do with food safety.”

Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist and policy analyst with Consumers Union, is quoted in the article, stating that, “People extrapolate that organic foods are safer in terms of pathogens. I wouldn’t necessarily assume they are safer.”

People that assume – or insist – that organic food products are safer are ignorant of the fact that food processing systems (harvesting, handling, manufacturing and packaging) are the same for products made with organically grown food as with standard, commercially grown food. (NOTE: Now I’m leaving the Times article and reporting from my own research.)

The good news is that per capita, Americans eat some of the safest food on the planet, whether organic or not, and enjoy the lowest risk of illness or death caused by contaminated food.

But what about unprocessed food, those lovely organic bananas, apples, nuts, pears, and heads of lettuce that some consumers are willing to pay up to 50 percent more for, because they’ve been told organic foods are safer, more nutritious, and taste better?

Myth, myth, myth. If you want to increase you and your family’s risk of illness from E. coli contamination, for instance, switch over to organic fruits and vegetables. A University of Minnesota study published in the May, 2004 issue of Journal of Food Protection found that, “the percentages of E. coli-positive samples in conventional and organic produce were 1.6% and 9.7%, respectively. Organic lettuce had the largest prevalence of E. coli (22.4%) compared with other produce types.”

As stated by a reporter in the February 20, 2000, ABC News 20/20 television program, “The real bad news for organic buyers is that the average concentration of E. coli in the [organic] contaminated spring mix was much higher…the organics were twice as likely to have E. coli and had larger amounts.”

Sorry to pile it on, but Dr. Jim Duncan, Ph.D., senior scientist for the Scottish Crop Research Institute states in the October 21, 2003 Times Higher Education Supplement that, “By not applying normal plant protection measures, such as fungicides, organic food would appear to be more at risk from mycotoxins contamination.”

“Organic means food that is grown in animal manure,” notes Robert V. Tauxe, M.D., MPH, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) foodborne and diarrheal disease branch. Airborne contamination (wind blowing soil that has manure content) is a huge contributor to organic produce contamination.

A University of Minnesota study examined fresh fruits and vegetables from 32 organic farms and compared them to produce from eight non-organic farms in Minnesota, testing them for E. coli and Salmonella (Salmonella is estimated by the CDC to cause over 1.3 million illnesses per year). The study found that organic produce was six times more likely to be contaminated by E. coli than the conventionally grown produce. The study also found Salmonella in a small percentage of organic green peppers and lettuce, but none in peppers and lettuce from the non-organic, conventional farms.

If you still think that the obviously higher risk of illness from eating organic produce is somehow offset by the fact you are not eating produce treated with synthetic fungicides and pesticides, you’re nuts. The minute traces of these chemicals that can be found in conventionally grown produce pose zero risk to human health and longevity, a fact that has been researched and proven countless times. It’s why we grow most of our crops, fruits and vegetable this way in America. It’s safer.

And of course, consumers need to be aware that organic fungicides and pesticides approved for use in organic farming are still chemicals – and that their residue shows up in organic foods, a fact you will never hear if your only sources for news are CNN, MNBC, National Public Radio and the Colbert Report. But not to worry, they don’t hurt you, either.

“Organic can never be defined as pesticide-free.”
– British Institute for Food Science and Technology

But what about animals? Let’s take a look at poultry. Here are some findings as reported in The Truth About Organic Foods by Alex Avery, director of research and education at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues:

“Organic food consumers should also be aware of the risk of Salmonella and other illness bacteria, such as Campylobacter, from organic and free-range chickens. Campylobacter is the leading cause of foodborne bacterial illnesses. The CDC estimates it causes nearly two million cases per year. These bacteria have been found more often and at higher levels in organic and free-range birds.

A study in Denmark in 2001 found that organic chicken is three times more likely to be contaminated by Campylobacter than conventional chicken. Whereas all organic chickens tested were infected with the bacteria (100%), only 36.7% of the non-organic chickens were infected. Britain’s Food Standards Agency found nearly identical numbers when it studied the issue in 2002. Experts theorize that the higher Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination rate of organic chickens is due to more time spent outdoors where they are exposed to wild bird feces and other sources of bacteria.”

Remember, the only reason we don’t suffer huge outbreaks of illness from eating chicken is that washing and cooking chicken usually kills off the bacteria – unless you, your teenage child, or the restaurant you eat at doesn’t wash the chicken properly, and cook it to the proper temperature. Then you get sick. The risk of this happening is higher the more organic chicken you consume.

On to the claims by the organic food industry of increased nutritional levels in organically grown food: They’re groundless.

“If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it’s up to them to make that foolish decision. But there’s absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition.”
– Dr. Norman Borlaug, agronomist and 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate

Here’s an interesting – and telling – excerpt from an interview on ABC TV’s 20/20, February 24, 2000, between reporter John Stossel and Katherine DiMatteo, director, Organic Trade Association:
   John Stossel: Is organic food more nutritious?
   Katherine DiMatteo: It’s as nutritious as any other product.
   Stossel: Is it more nutritious?
   DiMatteo: It is as nutritious as any other product on the market.

Following the ceremony for the unveiling of the USDA’s “Certified Organic” seal in 2000, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman had this to say:

“Let me be clear about one other thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality. Organic is about how it is produced. Just because something is labeled as organic does not mean it is superior, safer, or more healthy than conventional food. All foods in this country must meet the same high standards of safety regardless of their classification. For nutrition information, look at the nutrition label. And, as for quality, that’s a matter of personal preference.”

Lastly, when it comes to taste, every extensive taste test comparing organic fruits and vegetables to conventionally grown fruits and vegetables has always finished in a draw. Out of hundreds of blind taste tests, a certain variety of apple or pear or sweet corn grown by a non-organic farmer might be judged as better tasting by a few votes than the same variety grown organically. Sometimes it’s the organic apple, pear or corn that wins by a couple of votes. It probably has more to do with what the tester ate for breakfast than anything else.

The researchers use exactly the same varieties of vegetables and fruits grown in the exact same conditions in matching soils in fields only a mile or so apart, and harvest produce that is exactly the same number of days old. Studies always conclude that there is no discernible difference in taste.

The myth that organic produce tastes better comes from the fact that locally grown organic produce might hit the supermarket sooner after harvesting than non-organic produce. So yes, freshness is a major contributor to how sweet, tangy, or generally flavorful an apple or cherry or potato will taste. If you can be certain that the organic apples or tomatoes at your food market are fresher than the non-organic variety, they could have better taste, so buy them, if price isn’t an issue.

Just be sure to wash the bejesus out of them.

Here’s a link to an article on this site from a Myth of the Week from five years ago with additional research findings that also relates to this topic :“Organic produce is healthier and has more vitamins and nutrients than conventionally grown produce”

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener