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CDC says leafy greens are causing illness. Correct?

The media's not sure which food to blame for CDC's recent food poisoning summary

It was a case of "good news and bad news," lamented the blogger for a Minneapolis lawyer specializing in food-poisoning cases: The bad? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control released a pre-publication version of a study scheduled to appear in print in March regarding the suspected sources of food-poisoning outbreaks over a decade. It appeared to implicate leafy green vegetables in the greatest proportion of food-poisoning outbreaks over the last decade. The good? That same week, a new Oxford University study found that a vegetarian diet can reduce the risk of heart disease by one-third.

What's a vegetable-loving foodie to do?

But as is often the case today, the media was, at best, sloppy in reporting the real meaning of the CDC study, as well as the caution's the study's own authors made in interpreting their data. The CDC study, “Attribution of Foodborne Illnesses, Hospitalizations, and Deaths to Food Commodities by using Outbreak Data, United States, 1998–2008," attempted to track the individual food source of 13,352 suspected foodborne illness outbreaks between 1998 and 2008. The authors concluded, “More illnesses were attributed to leafy vegetables (22 percent) than to any other commodity; illnesses associated with leafy vegetables were the second most frequent cause of hospitalizations (14 percent) and the fifth most frequent cause of death (6 percent).”

And as is typical of many food-related media reports today, headlines were alarmist and grossly overgeneralized, including:

  • CDC: Beware the leafy greens, poultry and dairy"
  • "CDC ranks foods most likely to make Americans sick"
  • "Food Contamination: The Riskiest Stuff to Eat"
  • "Veggies To Blame For Majority Of Foodborne Illnesses."

However, the report's senior author, Patricia Griffin, a food-borne disease expert at CDC, cautioned USA Today that her study isn't meant to be a interpreted as a "risk of illness per serving" list for consumers. Instead, the statistics are meant only to help regulators and the food industry target efforts to improve the safety of food.

“Unfortunately, this report leaves out some very important details about the causes of foodborne illnesses, specifically how and where pathogens are introduced into the food supply,” Scott Horsfall, CEO of California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement said. “Because many produce items, particularly leafy greens, are eaten in their raw form, it is extremely important that safe handling is practiced throughout the supply chain." Norovirus, for example, which was implicated in about 60 percent of produce-related cases is almost always spread via food handling after the produce leaves the farm, he said. Other studies have likewise questioned the assumption that chicken is a relatively high source of food-poisoning, which this recent study identified as the food most likely to cause food-related death. Those studies have suggested chicken is merely a proxy for eating in a restaurant (because most people who eat out eat chicken), which is the real risk factor for such food illness.

Much of what the CDC study said never made it into print. For example:

  • The study authors included only outbreaks reported to CDC's monitoring system in which the reporting agency was able to blame both a food and a single germ, virus, chemical or other agent. If the report cited statistical evidence from an investigation of an epidemic or lab evidence that actually found the bug in the food at question, CDC considered the food implicated. Any of the other weaker criteria CDC permits reporting agencies to use--from their previous experience leading them to suspect a food, to evidence like simply finding the germ on a farm from which the food was known to have come--led them to label the food in those cases to be merely "suspect." Even though those food "suspects" made up a large part of the study's dataset, it was impossible to review the documentation for all those investigations. So CDC instead made an educated guess to include them anyway, based on their examination of a smaller set of 117 cases, in which they found 65 percent of "suspect" food cases ended up convincingly implicating the food. That finding, however, leaves open the question of whether 35 percent of the suspect foods in their dataset were being unfairly blamed.
  • Of the 13,352 food poisoning outbreaks they studied, the specific food source was only identified in 4,887 of them, or just 37 percent. For almost half of those 4,887 outbreaks, the “implicated food vehicle” contained ingredients from two or more food categories. Pie, for insance, could have included grains, fruits, oils, sugars and dairy. For those more complex foods, CDC simply allocated the blame across all ingredient foodstuffs in the same proportion which they found they were to blame in single-food cases. The authors themselves recognized that decision biased their results toward food commodities that tended to show up in individual-food outbreaks.
  • The research team recognized in their paper that dairy was shouldering an unfair amount of blame, both because it featured in a high number of the complex foods for which a single agent couldn't be blamed, and also because the high incidence of food poisoning blamed on people consuming raw milk were assigned to the entire milk category. Modeling in the future should separate those categories, the study recommended.
  • The study authors purposely included only individual illness cases that were a part of some larger outbreak, reasoning that because larger outbreaks are investigated more thoroughly than small, sporadic ones, they would have more success in finding a culprit food. They recognized that decision biased their results toward the causes implicated in large outbreaks; however, they argued that large outbreaks "often represent system failures that have resulted in smaller, undetected outbreaks...." Identifying culprits in small outbreaks and sporadic incidents may not be possible with any method, they recognized.
  • Even if the foods are blamed fairly and accurately, the researchers warned, their study looked at only the relative contribution of each food commodity to cases, not the actual contribution. In other words, the more foods are the eaten, the more likely they are to be blamed in the study's model. "When food commodities are consumed frequently, even those with a low risk for pathogen transmission per serving may result in a high number of illnesses.," they said.
  • Many of the illnesses attributed to vegetables in the study were causeb by norovirus. Norovirus is seldom carried by foodstuffs from the farm, but is instead often spread by cooks and food handlers. Therefore, although it's important for grocers to be aware of that source of potential contamination, it's important to note that it's an indictment of the system more than of any individual food commodity. It also underscores the importance of consumers handling and cooking foods carefully themselves.

Meanwhile, CDC officials emphasized that their report should not be seen as discouraging people from eating vegetables. The bottom line, added the CDC study: "...attribution of foodborne-associated illnesses and deaths to specific commodities is useful for prioritizing public health activities; however, additional data on the specific food consumed is needed to assess per-serving risk. The risk for foodborne illness is just one part of the risk–benefit equation for foods; other factors, such as the health benefits of consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables, must also be considered."


The Food Morality Movement

Food has suddenly become the great moral cause of our era. Why?

  • Coming into the contentious November California ballot initiative that would have mandated many foods produced using biotechnology be labeled, The New Yorkers' long-time science, technology and public health reporter, Michael Specter, pronounced bioengineered foods convincingly safe, trustworthy and an efficient way to help feed the world. And yet, unacceptable. "Genetic engineering is only one particularly powerful way to do what we have been doing for eleven thousand years," he wrote. "[But] Here’s what the hysteria is really about: corporate control of seeds....If [citizens] have problems with the morality of an international conglomerate controlling the food we eat, then let’s elect people who want to make that more difficult," according to Specter.
  • To celebrate the 25th anniversary this month of the bestselling book, Diet for a New America, author Joh Robbins is re-releasing the anti-food-system litany, which the book's publisher hypes as startling examination of the food we currently buy and eat in the United States, and the astounding economic, emotional and moral price we pay for it.
  • Safeway announced this month it would require all its natural and cage-free egg lines be officially blessed by the Certified Humane® designation. Certified Humane, a brand mark of the non-profit Humane Farm Animal Care association, is not only marketed as the best method to ensure farmers meet their "moral and ethical obligation" to their animals, but according to some actually seems to mysteriously make the meat of those animals taste better.
  • Commenting upon a recent Journal of Pediatrics study showing obese children tend to be more influenced by advertising than non-obese kids, an assistant professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City told one of the local TV stations, "I think it raises the question, and it's a difficult question, of how ethical is it to advertise unhealthy food products to children, especially when we see that obese children are potentially more vulnerable...."

The Food Morality Movement

Every now and then, the increasingly vocal critics of the modern food system (of which the grocer plays a critical part) tip their hands and engage in a little accidental honesty. TIME magazine reporter and vocal critic of the modern food system Bryan Walsh did just that in his piece early last year "Foodies Can Eclipse (and Save) the Green Movement." In his essay, Walsh argues that the new food movement represents a potential rebirth for a flagging environmental movement that’s being shunned by the political establishment. “Even as traditional environmentalism struggles,” Walsh writes, “another movement is rising in its place, aligning consumers, producers, the media and even politicians. It's the food movement, and if it continues to grow it may be able to create just the sort of political and social transformation that environmentalists have failed to achieve in recent years. That would mean not only changing the way Americans eat…but also altering the way we work and relate to one another. To its most ardent adherents, the food movement isn't just about reform — it's about revolution.”

And what’s the common cause that underlies that new revolution? A link through to another Walsh TIME article from the December 2010 issue makes it clear: “Has Environmentalism Lost Its Spiritual Core?”

“Environmentalism,” Walsh writes, “began as a religion.” That’s how Sierra Club founder John Muir saw it a century and a half ago, when he called Yosemite "the grandest of all special temples of Nature." And that’s the way Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai views a sustainable food system, as Walsh also quotes her, “…when she points out that we can't forgo the natural connection that we feel for nature, even if we are becoming an urban animal. ‘A certain tree, forest or mountain itself may not be holy, [but] the life-sustaining services it provides — the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink — are what make existence possible…. The environment becomes sacred, because to destroy what is essential to life is to destroy life itself.’"

Today’s foodie-ism is but a new denomination in the church of environmentalism, according to Walsh. It’s “a religion that John Muir would recognize — and one we shouldn't surrender.”

Numerous churches are buying into not only the language of the new food morality movement, but the underlying philosophy, as well, according to Truth in Food author Kevin Murphy. Ironically, it masks a philosophy that often runs counter to the beliefs many traditional church-going Americans hold dear, Murphy wrote in “Christians and the New Food Movement” for the journal Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, which won the Catholic Press Association's 2012 award for Best Essay by a Scholarly Magazine.

“Food has become a moral metaphor,” Murphy says. “Food is a platform into all kinds of social issues, from global warming, sustainability, all the way to labor to treatment of animals to treatment of people. If you want to take a red cord and weave it through the stories, this is what it comes down to – it’s the ethics of food and food animal production.”

“Food today is going to be continually presented under the prism of food morality,” Murphy says. “So when you ask yourself about what you’re doing, you have to look at what you do through the prism of food morality.”

Agriculture and the food system as whole must reclaim the moral high ground, which opponents of modern food production and distribution are working tirelessly to undermine. Traditionally, ranchers and farmers have argued from the camp of reason and science while the system's opponents argue from emotion and ethics. In the new push to make food a moral issue, the race is now on between those two opposing camps to reach the high ground of moral defense. It all starts with asking the complexly simple question of what you do and why do it: "Is this practice right, or is it wrong?"

 Agree or disagree? Use the comment window below to weigh in.


Should the government be dictating candy placement to control obesity?

Photo: Anthony Easton/Flickr

New England Journal of Medicine’s call to ban product placement that spurs impulse buying has opened debate about everything but the root question

A duo of public health researchers, who share a history of examining how questions of nutrition, public health and "social justice" intersect, penned an Oct. 11 New England Journal of Medicine article laying out the case for government regulation of how and where you slot candy and other high-fat, high-sugar foods. The two authors of the commentary, Rand Corp.'s Deborah Cohen and University of California Los Angeles researcher Susan Babey, argued that placement designed to spur impulse buying puts food decisions beyond the average person’s control, and thus contributes to obesity and related health problems.

Who can control their own obesity? Nobody, apparently“[Society’s] reluctance to interfere with or regulate the food environment is a direct consequence of the belief that people's food choices reflect their true desires," Cohen and Babey wrote in "Candy at the Cash Register — A Risk Factor for Obesity and Chronic Disease." "However, given the large proportion of people who claim that they want to lose weight and the small proportion who are actually able to do so, we must concede that human behavior doesn't always conform with professed goals."

“…many people…think that those who respond to impulse marketing simply lack self-control and should learn how to resist such marketing strategies,” they write. They dismiss that call for self-control. For a variety of reasons, they argue, “promotional displays of low-nutrient foods are both particularly influential and difficult to resist.” Because such promotional displays, particularly on high-value endcaps and checkout lanes, also tend to target shoppers when they’re “distracted, stressed or have made decisions that ‘deplete their cognitive capacity,’ (read: done so much exhausting thinking in the rest of the store that they’ve simply worn out their ability to be rational by the time they reach the cash register)," the combination of flashy presentation and convenience often overwhelms even the most resolute shopper’s ability to resist.

Should be regulated like carcinogens in water?

Because placement puts such a burden on the consumer’s ability to eat healthy, the researchers argue, it deserves to be regulated like other food-borne risk factors.

New England Journal of Medicine compares candy placement to carcinogens in water'We should treat it like carcinogens in water, because placement influences food choice largely automatically and out of our control'

- Cohen and Babey, NEJM

“…we should consider treating it as a hidden risk factor, like carcinogens in water, because placement influences our food choices in a way that is largely automatic and out of our conscious control and that subsequently affects our risk of diet-related chronic diseases,” Cohen and Babey say. “We need to test new approaches to risk reduction that do not place additional cognitive demands on the population, such as limiting the types of foods that can be displayed in prominent end-of-aisle locations and restricting foods associated with chronic diseases to locations that require a deliberate search to find.”

And lest you believe the article is simply a two-page thought exercise, it’s important to note an additional point that escaped attention of the news reports regarding the Cohen and Babey article. The Journal--which has not been shy in the past about leading crusades against other perceived unacceptable health risks like antibiotics in farm animals, direct-to-consumer drug advertising and tobacco products--follows up its Oct. 11 commentary on product placement with another two-page article carefully outlining step-by-step the legal arguments for why government has the authority to do precisely what the Cohen and Babey article suggested—control what can and can’t be placed where and when in a supermarket.

The follow up article, “Portion Sizes and Beyond — Government’s Legal Authority to Regulate Food-Industry Practices,” argues government has a legal right to impose food retailing restrictions, from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent ban on large soft drinks to placement of items in supermarkets, to limiting sale of soft drinks in schools to banning products it considers harmful like caffeinated alcohol drinks. It argues that “industry’s” laundry list of objections to such heavy regulation—that government does not hold jurisdiction, that such regulations impinge on free speech rights, that they violate the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, that they violate the Equal Protection Clause by arbitrarily attacking one food or food group over another, or that they deprive consumers of due-process because they’re arbitrary—do not hold water from a purely legal standpoint.

That commentary’s authors, Jennifer Pomeranz and Kelly Brownell, from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, may not be recognizable by name, but they likely will be recognizable by message. Brownell, a professor of both psychology and public health epidemiology , authored the 2004 book, Food Fight. In it, he argued individuals will never be able to beat the combined force of politics and industry that now controls their eating decisions. Instead, he argues, they require a unified movement “of Ghandian proportions,” as one reviewer characterized it, to push back against the forces controlling them through legal means.

As to personal responsibility, Brownell summarily dismisses it. “Personal responsibility,” Brownell first wrote in Food Fight, is simply a matter of rare individual skill or “biological fortune.”

“Choices people make are important,” Brownell reluctantly concedes, “but the nation has played the willpower and restraint cards for years and finds itself trumped again and again by an environment that overwhelms the resources of most people.”

Public good outweighs individual rights, Brownell argues'The overall welfare of the citizenry trumps certain individual or industry freedoms'

- Kelly Brownell, Yale


By 2009, writing in an essay for the Milbank Quarterly, “The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?” Brownell was even more blunt about where accountability rightly lies. “These points play well in America—personal responsibility and freedom are central values—but they obscure the reality that some of the most significant health advances have been made by population-based public health approaches in which the overall welfare of the citizenry trumps certain individual or industry freedoms.” In Brownell’s vision, personal responsibility is to be replaced with a heavy paternalism under the guise of corporate social responsibility. In fact, Brownell believes, any talk of personal responsibility, whether posed by tobacco companies or food retailers, is not a virtue, but simply a “PR script” designed to deflect responsibility and raise fears that government action usurps personal freedom. “Can one reasonably defend half a million deaths per year from cigarettes by provoking fears that freedom and choice are threatened...?”

Let freedom sting?

Legal scholars who disagree with Brownell's position have laid out a long list of objections to comparing tobacco to food from a legal standpoint. According to a lengthy legal review by attorney, doctor and Medical College of Virginia in Richmond Associate Professor Joseph McMenamin and Virginia attorney and medical doctor of philosophy Andrea Tiglio, those counterarguments run the gamut from the reality that obesity is caused by a host of factors--many beyond the control of farmers and food retailers--to the fact that food, unlike tobacco, is not addictive. Lawsuits against food-system participants for causing obesity, McMenamin and Tiglio write, not only have no reasonable basis in the law, but also risk causing damage beyond financial losses by eroding that individual freedom Brownell dismisses.

"Harm will be particularly likely if plaintiffs’ counsel succeed in persuading the public that overeating is an addiction, a disease," they argue. "This model denies autonomy to the obese, and teaches them that they are powerless over their own behavior. This sends the wrong message.The disease model excuses behavior that ought not be excused and disables the overeater from helping himself." That rush to excuse individuals from feeling the sting of their own actions not only has the practical consequence of trivializing obesity control and thus actually undermining the supposed public-health aims of those like Brownell and the New England Journal of Medicine, but it also has the pernicious effect of "[eroding] the philosophical pillars on which American freedom and democracy stand."

And that effect, ultimately, may be the highest price to pay for the increasing willingness to regulate freedom in food, says lawyer Baylen Linnekin. As executive director of the Washington, D.C. nonprofit Keep Food Legal, which advocates for the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing, Linnekin has written extensively on the question of personal responsibility and government’s moral--if not legal--right to intervene.

Public good outweighs individual rights, Brownell argues'As America inches toward the misguided idea that smart people in government who think for us can solve our problems, we move further away from America's founding values'

- Baylen Linnekin,
Keep Food Legal


Despite what Linnekin sees as a troubling willingness by the legal system to entertain the idea that free choice in food is not a legally recognized right--New York Mayor Bloomberg, for instance, dismissed freedom of choice arguments against his soda ban by claiming it was not one of the “freedoms.... that the Founding Fathers fought for”--he argues food choice and the wider question of individual rights intersect intellectually, historically, philosophically and factually. Today's arguments over freedom to eat, whether raw milk or supermarket Snickers bars, enjoy a long heritage in this country. British economic aggression against the colonies like the Sugar Act, which often taxed and restricted the colonists food choices, are precisely the petty tyranny that finally drove those Founding Fathers to revolt. And although the  Supreme Court has yet to uphold a fundamental right to food choice, several justices have recognized the right, including liberal Justice William O. Douglas, who argued the Ninth Amendment’s unenumerated fundamental rights includes “one’s taste for food... [which] is certainly fundamental in our constitutional scheme—a scheme designed to keep government off the backs of people.” Justice Stephen Field likewise recognized food procurement is an “integral fundamental right of all Americans, an essential element of liberty.”

No less than Thomas Jefferson, Linnekin says, argued that banning food had no place in America. Such bans simply substituted the individual judgement of free people with the blanket coercion of  “[f]allible men” with their own set of prejudices and preferences. It’s a threat to the spirit of individual liberty that founds the soul of American governance, as pertinent today as it was two centuries ago.

“As America inches more and more toward technocracy,” Linnekin writes, “—the misguided idea that ‘smart’ people in the ‘right’ places in government who think for us can and should identify and solve all our problems— we move further away from America’s founding values.”

What’s the answer, then, to save the “preventably lost lives” Brownell believes will be the the price of not regulating freedom to be fat?

"Obesity litigation will further erode the sense of personal responsibility on which the nation was founded," say McMenamin and Tiglio. "...the obese should seek help not from lawyers but from doctors and, more important, from themselves."

Linnekin adds, “Rather than subjecting opinion to coercion, we should subject it to debate within the marketplace of ideas. …coercion has no role to play in our decisionmaking. We may render to God and/or Caesar certain limited powers, but individuals retain the rest. In short, it’s up to us to pick and choose which information we follow.”

Anti-GMO advocates continue on.

Opponents of Biotechnology in Food Production Vow to Fight On.

California's ballot measure earlier this month that would have made California the first state to require foods raised using biotechnology to be labeled as such went down to defeat by a significant, but nail-biting, 52 percent to 48 percent. Although polls showed support for the initiative was at one point higher than 60 percent, advocates for the measure complain that a last-minute infusion of an estimated $45 million in spending by opponents, including the Grocery Manufacturers of America, turned public support against it by arguing it would increase food prices and hurt local supermarkets and other businesses.

Advocates for biotech labeling, such as Michelle Simon, a public health lawyer and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back, put a brave face on her movement's loss. "The campaign is still an important step forward in the larger political fight against Big Food, one that raised a lot of awareness about GMOs, food production, and corporate tactics, both in California and nationally," she said. "The effort to pass Proposition 37 in California demonstrates a 'bona fide movement gathering steam.'

Following the California loss, the Pacific regional director of  Food & Water Watch, an environmental group that actively campaigns against modern farm practices, said in a statement, "The incessant drumbeat of misleading and outright false industry advertising was barely able to defeat this popular measure. While disappointed in the result, we believe that this movement to label GE foods is stronger than ever and we will continue to build a robust national grassroots campaign to push for mandatory labeling across the country."

Taking the fight to your stores?

For the record, that campaign is expected to take two tacks: A series of renewed pushes at the state level to introduce legislation and increased pressure at the federal level to overturn the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's long-held position that biotech crops are not substantially different than those genetically altered by traditional breeding methods and thus do not warrant special labeling.

Off the record, grocers should prepare for increased attention on the issue at store level. Those efforts could take the form of:

  • Boycotts of the food companies who opposed the California initiative. Pepsi, Coca Cola, Nestle, Kellog, General Mills, Hershey, J.M. Smucker, Hormel and other large manufacturers provided funding support to defeat the initiative. They have therefore been targeted as potential boycott prospects.
  • Supermarket postcard, manager’s-letter and online letter-writing campaigns, designed to give the impression of emerging grassroots concern regarding biotech that demands immediate answers, from you.
  • Continued promotion of farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture and other direct-to-farm merchandising campaigns as the healther, "non-GMO" alternatives to the traditional food-delivery chain that ends at supermarkets. Expect new health messages to be coupled with price messages backed by increased lobbying to promote the use of public-assistance benefits at farmers markets.
  • Freelance labeling and other product tampering. "We, the people need to stand up for ourselves and each other, not just at the voting booth every couple of years, but in our every day lives," writes former Kansas City public interest attorney and "socially just agriculture" advocate Maria Whitaker. "Please feel free to download sticker templates...and print them out, so the next time you head to your grocery store, you can help let people know what's in their food."

Like it or not, says Kevin Murphy, president of Food-Chain Communications, a communication firm designed to increase communication within the food system, the promise of these guerilla tactics targeting food retailers will put you in the center of the controversy. You should consider this an opportunity to add value to your traditional merchandising by engaging in the debate, forcefully and directly. No one else in the chain is in a better position to do so.

"Once it became a political fight, opponents of labeling spent $45 million to prevent these burdensom regulations from becoming a reality. That’s about five times more than the advocates spent. But the question that needs to be asked is this: Could the $9.39 it cost for each ballot cast against this regulatory nightmare have been more effectively invested before this became a political issue?

"Yes, they won the day," Murphy says. "But even though I disagree with most of what Michelle Simon believes about food technology, I do agree with her one statement: This is a growing movement. The difference in the vote in California came down to only about 500,000 people. That means 4.3 million people voted to require biotech foods to be labeled. It took just 10 weeks to get the 1 million signatures needed to put it before the voters. That’s sobering. And it should awaken all of us in the food chain to the reality that if we’re not having a conversation with food consumers every day about how food is grown, produced and delivered, there will come a day when no amount spent on political lobbying will protect us from unreasonable demands imposed politically.

"That old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure was never more true than it was in the California. Let's pretend we had the same situation in Nebraska. Nebraska's voter turnout of 69 percent of registered voters represents about 43 percent of the overall population. If you apply the same percentage that voted in favor of biotech labeling in California, you'd be talking about roughly 20 percent of the people here. Coincidentally, that's about the same percentage who visit a grocery store regularly. The food chain obviously can't walk away from engaging when it's pressed with political issues. But I believe the fight will be won--or lost--at the point where the consumer comes in contact with their food and issues like biotechnology--at the grocery store, where 52 percent of food sales still pass through. The amount of money and effort it would take to strengthen the relationship between product manufacturers and grocers there, to inform and equip grocers who can in turn inform and equip their consumers, would pay off much greater than the heroic efforts necessary to turn the tide once it reaches the stage of political action. You’re actually taking a proactive measure all along, so when something like this comes up, the nonsense is clearly and immediately recognized."

My organic's more-ganic than your organic?

After the widely reported Stanford meta-analysis of 200 previous scientific studies shed official doubt on the conventional wisdom that organic food is more nutritious and safer than non-organic, organic defenders among the new food movement leapt into the debate to try to convince consumers the organic foods industry never really said they were.

“That we needed a study to understand how nutritionally similar organic foods are to non-organics is a perfect example of the way we've lost sight of what the term really means,” wrote Atlantic associate editor and organics advocate Brian Fung.

"It's a red herring," Molly Anderson, chair of Food and Sustainable Agriculture Systems at College of the Atlantic told Maine Today. "It's asking the wrong question. The nutritional reasons are not the reasons why I think people are buying organic.” Instead, Anderson argued, echoing the objections raised by other organic defenders, consumers choose organic because they want to avoid residues of pesticides used by crop farmers and traces of antibiotics used by livestock farmers.

Yet the Stanford researchers themselves recognized the weakness of at least half that claim. Although it's true organic products tended to have significantly less pesticide residues than conventionally raised products, the residues in both types were well below the levels U.S. regulators consider a safety or health concern. And even though conventional meats do tend to show higher levels of antibiotic resistant germs than organic ones, that's not to say organic products are free of those organisms (they're not), nor that the level in either presents any significant risk to human health. (Some respected scientists argue they don't.)

So what's left to promote? If organic food turns out to present no meaningful health benefits, even as the majority of consumer surveys show consumers buy them based on precisely that notion, it's understandable that organic advocates are suddenly rushing to defend them on other grounds. They argue there are other, "more important" reasons to buy.

Undermining 'the ethos' of organics

That contradiction between what shoppers think they're getting and what sellers believe they're selling reveals a looming identity crisis in the organics movement, one that could prove its downfall. The argument over the true meaning of organic was never so obvious as it was in 2006, when no less than Wal-Mart announced a plan to stock a complete organic foods section in its 4,000 stores nationwide. Although Wal-Mart's move was hailed as the mainstreaming—at long last—of organic food, which had the potential to price organics within reach of the mass market and finally dispel the myth that organic food was reserved only for the rich, critics attacked the retail giant for co-opting the meaning of "organic."

The executive director of the Organic Consumers Association kicked off a national protest by saying he found Wal-Mart’s reputation for driving down vendor prices troubling news for organic lovers. By late 2006, the Cornucopia Institute, another activist group promoting low-intensity, organic farming, had filed complaints with USDA. Both these organic-support groups’ accusations against the retail giant included complaints about low wages, lack of a labor union, resistance to buying employees health insurance, wage inequity by gender and impact on mom-and-pop stores. The groups complained Wal-Mart, whether living by USDA's letter of law in selling organic or not, was nevertheless threatening to “undermine the ethos of the organics movement.”

“Food shipped around the world, burning fossil fuels and undercutting our domestic farmers does not meet the consumer’s traditional definition of what is truly organic,” a Cornucopia spokesman said. Ditto, the OCA: “We are asking consumers to...demand that the stores they frequent carry organic, local, and Fair Trade or Fair Made alternatives,” said the spokesman.

Infighting begins

That very public dispute with Wal-Mart unveiled publicly a long-standing rift within the organics community about what it really means to "be organic enough." USDA recognizes organic as simply a process—not a claim to better food--and regularly warns purveyors not to make claims that promote organic as safer or healthier. England’s counterpart, the Food Standards Agency, since late 2006 has likewise forbidden that country’s organic producers from promoting the health advantage of their products, saying the science doesn't support it. Most organic companies and advocates, like the Organic Trade Association, have acquiesed to that regulatory stipulation, even as they have regularly pushed for increased funding to find the provable advantages in nutritional profiles of organically produced food, especially for the current big ticket foodstuffs.

Meanwhile, many of the organic purists resist even USDA’s current standards which OTA supports, arguing they need to be “more organic" by officially recognizing many of the social and cultural standards that have, to them, always defined the real reasons consumers should look for the organic seal.

"For many consumers, an organic apple tastes sweeter not only because it’s healthier,” author Felicia Mello wrote in the liberal magazine The Nation, “but because it conjures up a vision of a simpler, more pure world, where we produce our food without wreaking havoc on the environment and our relationship to it is unmediated by fear, guilt or the drive for excessive profits.”

Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst with the Cornucopia Institute, wrote in response to the recent Stanford study,  "I will stick with the diet that concentrates on fresh, local, more flavorful food that’s produced without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and genetically modified organisms. And I for one think I’m getting a good value for my own health, while at the same time supporting good environmental stewardship and economic justice...."

Although it may be too early to brand this as a fight for the soul of the organic movement, the infighting between the organic and the more-ganic wings of the “sustainable” farming fashion has the potential to add to growing consumer confusion over exactly what your shoppers are getting when they willingly increase their food expenses at a time of food inflation simply based on vague notions of "the right thing to do." What should be clear to grocers who are actively working to shape themselves into the community wellness center is this take-away: The most radical arm of the organics movement, those purists who believe the ideology of "food justice" has always been the defining identity of organic, have willingly conspired in the charade that organic food is healthier for consumers. Now that those health claims are being questioned out in the open, for all consumers to see, grocers could be thrust into the path of a potential consumer backlash.

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