Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Is organic safer?

Kim Severson and Andrew Martin take up this question in the New York Times this morning.
Although the rules governing organic food require health inspections and pest-management plans, organic certification technically has nothing to do with food safety.

“Because there are some increased health benefits with organics, people extrapolate that it’s safer in terms of pathogens,” said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist and policy analyst with Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. “I wouldn’t necessarily assume it is safer.”

But many people who pay as much as 50 percent more for organic food think it ought to be.
Now that organic food is a big industry, with big companies on a national scale, the distinction between organic food and conventional food should be understood precisely as the list of food qualities protected by the federal government's official definition of organic. This list includes a restricted menu of permitted pesticides, no GMOs, and several other qualities that are important to many consumers. Because increased pathogen monitoring is not one of the elements of the official definition, I would expect modest but not dramatic food safety advantages from food certified as organic.


Anonymous said...

By law food safety is the purview of the Federal and State governments.

The underlying aspect of this story is that the Bush administration starved the beast, did not hire or replace food safety inspectors, and ignored food safety regulations.

Organic got caught up in the horror that was the Bush administration

extramsg said...

I would think that in many cases, organic is less safe. 1) The local and small organic/natural farmers have less money to put into food safety systems, 2) the use of natural fertilizers and pesticides, such as manure and other bugs, should make it more likely, not less likely, for pathogens to be introduced.

The big disadvantage for the large conglomerates doesn't seem to be necessarily how safe the food itself is, but rather being able to identify the source of the problem. It seems like the most important thing is to be able to track what goes where with some certainty, so when a problem does arise, adequate measures can be taken to prevent more people from being injured.

And when someone does do something to harm the public, even through their negligence, they need to be adequately dealt with.

Diana Dyer said...

I thought an advantage of USDA-certified organic foods is the traceability of every aspect of that food, including sourcing of all ingredients. So any one food or food product may or may not be inherently safer, but if any problems do develop, they could be much more quickly traced back to the source of the problem. Is this true or am I naive?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
J said...

Despite what extramsg says, there has been no evidence that organic food is less safe, certainly not because of "the use of natural fertilizers and pesticides, such as manure and other bugs." As we've seen from numerous food problems, getting cow sh*t on food is not at all limited to its use as manure on fields. Indeed, I challenge them to show a modern case of widespread food contamination from the application of manure on-field. Besides which, manure use is not limited to organic farms by any stretch. As for "other bugs" -- it's hard to see what "other bugs" extramsg refers to that pose a threat to human health. I seriously doubt predatory insects to control crop pests are ending up in food, or that nitrogen-fixing bacteria epidemics are around the corner.

I agree with them about traceability being a key need for the food system, but I don't think research bears out the idea that use of "natural fertilizers and pesticides" is somehow more dangerous than the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which are no great shakes for health, themselves. And since organic is increasingly industrialized, the small organic farmers are less of a factor, though I also don't know of any evidence that they have more trouble complying with safety due to tighter budgets; indeed, a smaller farm may be that much easier to monitor and keep clean than an industrial system with a huge throughput to track and monitor. Bet a small peanut-producer would notice the scummy conditions in their production system faster than a paid contractor (or a contractor paid not to notice)...