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Sunday November 19, 2017

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.


It's grown so repetitious across the Internet as to become conventional wisdom: Grilling red meat over hot coals is the fast track to the cancer clinic. But is it really true? Here are six good tips you can use to help reassure shoppers a Fourth of July cookout can and should be in their plans.

1. Keep the risk in perspective. When scientific studies speak of an increased "risk" of cancer associated with eating grilled red meat (or anything else, for that matter), it's important to remember "risk" does not mean "certainty." That identified risk is always relative, often very small, and seldom applicable across the board. Although the scientific literature over the last quarter century has associated the high intake of meat, especially red meat and processed meat, with an increased risk of cancers like colorectal cancer, even most advocates for a reduced-meat diet concede the studies are not conclusive. The same is true of the 35-year-old theory that says the process of grilling and frying cause beef to form cancer-causing compounds in the fat and meat. Although at first glance the theory is attractive, says Nobel Prize winner for medicine and the director of Germany's national Cancer Research Center Harald zur Hausen, we know the same process forms the same carcinogens when white meat and fish are grilled, yet no studies have identified any associated increase in cancer risk when those grilled items are eaten.


So it's important consumers understand the risks they see reported in the media about grilling red meat are not well understood, and they likely are not an imminent danger. They face much higher risk, and more certain risk, driving to the store to buy the meat than they do grilling and eating it, for instance. The bottom line is this, wrote Peter Boyle, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2008, "After decades of research activity, we still do not know how we need to change what we eat to reduce our cancer risk.... The media and the general public need to be told clearly what are the facts and how important they are in the broad scheme of things."

2. Grill meats at a medium temperature, to prevent the charring that can produce higher levels of those carcinogens, even if it means cooking them for a longer time. When charcoal grilling, you have achieved medium heat when coals are no longer flaming, are ash-covered and spread in a single layer. Gas grills often vary widely in heat output, so check your owner's manual, or hold the palm of your hand above the heat source at cooking height. If you can keep it there for about four seconds, you've achieved medium heat.

3. Add some fruits and vegetables. Eating plant-based foods may be associated with lower cancer risk. Mixing meat and vegetables to make kabobs is a great way to have the best of both worlds.

4. Trim, if necessary. Trimming any excess fat from meat and poultry and selecting leaner cuts can both limit the drippings that can cause flare-ups and deposit potential carcinogens on meat.

5. Offer shoppers marinades. Marinating meat before grilling with marinades containing little or no sugar can decrease the formation of some grilling-associated carcinogenic compounds by as much as 96 percent, according to one study. In addition to adding flavor and tenderness to meat and poultry, marinade can also help protect meat from charring. Sugary sauces and glazes can be used, but they require basting during the last few minutes of grilling to prevent charring.

6. Trust the thermometer. An instant-read thermometer inserted horizontally into the side of burgers, steaks and chops is every grilling customer's friend. Owning--and using one--is an important contributor not only to preventing unnecessary charring, but also to preventing overcooking that can lead to consumer disappointment.

Source: American Institute for Cancer Research, National Cattlemen's Beef Association

When USDA released its new Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Compass in March, an online interactive U.S. map showing local food infrastructures, farm to institution programs, health food access for underserved communities, and other aspects of the $65 million program, it wasn't difficult to notice one important link in the food chain was missing from the map. You.

Community food security and small farmers market advocates continue to try to draw a bright line between community-focused supermarkets and small, local "farmers markets." In doing, so they attracted the attention of many farmers, small and large, who obviously want to see markets flourish that encourage sales of farm products. However, we think it would be a mistake to overlook the longterm implications of the "us vs. them" mentality that's developing around the 6,100 farmer’s markets which USDA now reports exist across the country -- a full 16 percent increase since last year and double the number of a decade ago.

The Cornucopia Institute, one of the most vocal advocates for organic farming in the United States, alleges a "conspiracy" between corporate agriculture and the USDA and details what it claims to be a climate of regulatory abuse and corporate exploitation at USDA's organic certification program. The Cornucopia report charges the USDA with "stacking" the National Organic Standards Board with agribusiness executives that all too often have "sold out" the interests of organic farmers and consumers.

In its new white paper, The Organic Watergate, Cornucopia claims the NOSB has "increasingly facilitated the use of questionable synthetic additives and even dangerous chemicals in organic foods," the group said last month, including synthetic nutrient oils in dairy products and other "unreviewed synthetic ingredients."

"We implore consumers not to reject organics because a handful of corporations have acted recklessly and the USDA has failed to do their legally mandated job. Organic farmers, and their ethical processing partners, need your support now more than ever," Cornucopia's director Mark Kastel said in a statement. "And health conscious families deserve authentic organic food."

But the Cornucopia report neglected to note some important paradoxes built into the very definition of that "authentic organic" food. Do your organic-friendly shoppers really understand these common myths about organics?

MYTH: Organics are pesticide-free. Although the exact percentage varies from survey to survey, every study that asks shoppers why they prefer organic finds at least a majority give the same answer: They believe buying organic avoids pesticides. Not true. Like conventional farmers, organic farmers also use pesticides to control plant diseases and damaging pests. More than 20 chemicals are approved by the NOSB and are commonly used in organic production. And because they tend to be less effective on a pound-per-pound basis, some organic pesticides are used at greater rates per acre than common conventional pesticides. Organic pesticides are by definition those made from natural sources; however, research is demonstrating that the traditional assumption that just because a chemical occurs naturally it is safer is not necessarily true. Many naturally derived pesticides, including those like rotenone and permethrins, have been demonstrated to carry serious risks to human health. Organic does not equal pesticide-free.

MYTH: Organics are safer. Organic pesticide residue is not the only safety issue organics could potentially raise. Because NOSB standards forbid use of synthetic fertlizer, organic farms rely more heavily on animal manure than do their conventional counterparts. Because many foodborne pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella are carried and spread by fecal contamination, that raises the risk that organic foods may be contaminated by those pathogens. Although the jury's still out on whether the risk is truly higher with organics, research has certainly demonstrated the risk exists: A Minnesota study from 2004, for instance, discovered E. coli in produce sampled from one in 10 organic farms, compared to just 2 percent from conventional farms. An Ohio study in 2007 showed pigs from antibiotic-free farms was more likely to have been carrying several important pathogens before harvest than conventional farms that used those medications forbidden by the organic standards.

MYTH: Organics are healthier.Despite scientific comparisons between organic and conventional farming that now reach back a half decade, scientists still have not found compelling evidence organic makes any difference in consumers' health. A systematic review of more than 160 previous studies from peer-reviewed journals between 1958 and 2008 found no differences in nutritional content of more than 15 different nutrients. Where there were demonstrable differences in nutritional content, none were found to be big enough to impact human health. Joseph Rosen, emeritus professor of food toxicology at Rutgers, writes “….a consumer who buys organic food thinking that it is more nutritious is wasting a considerable amount of money. Even if organic advocates turn out to be correct in their assertions that organic food has more nutrient content than conventional food when tested against each other in valid matched pairs, how is the consumer going to use this information to make the right choice? Except for just a few fruits and vegetables, the consumer can not tell what variety of a crop is being offered for sale, thus making the selection of organic or conventional a crap shoot.”

MYTH: Organics taste better. Safety and health claims aside, then, can organic deliver on the consumers second most common belief that they simply taste better. Not likely, blind taste-testing shows. In one study from 1992, non-expert tasters actually preferred the taste of several conventional over organic. Another from 2002 found that although panelists preferred organic orange juice over conventional, they could tell no difference between organic and conventional milk.

Consumers believe home-grown eggs are less likely to carry Salmonella? Think again, CDC warns

Are backyard chickens safer than commercial ones?

As cities across both the nation and Nebraska debate the wisdom of revising their zoning ordinances to accomodate the growing popularity of small-scale, “backyard” poultry hobbyists, it's important to keep some perspective on the health benefits of that type of chicken farming.

Surveys conducted of small backyard chicken growers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture tend to suggest their sanitation and disease-control practices, known to poultry growers as “biosecurity” practices, are often less strict than those practiced by large farms. For instance:

  • Overall, USDA found, only one in 10 flocks is seen by a veterinarian in the course of year.
  • Only about one-half of the survey respondents were aware of a connection between poultry and infection in people.
  • For flocks that reported having children in the household, the majority permitted contact between birds and children.
  • About one out of every six flock owners reported they had allowed chickens inside their homes at some time in the last three months.

How backyard chicken flock health practices could encourage disease spread

Those types of biosecurity oversights likely contributed to an outbreak of Salmonella last year believed to be carried by newly hatched chicks delivered to small urban chicken growers. In response, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued warnings that small egg growers may be engaging in practices that put them at risk of contracting or spreading dangerous forms of the food-borne bacteria.

At last count, the Salmonella outbreaks had sickened 92 people in 20 states, according to CDC, including nearby Minnesota and Kansas. The government doctors reported the offending poultry had been traced to a single hatchery in Ohio that supplies small egg layers by mail, although the hatchery contended it had not found the organism in its premises; it suspected one of its suppliers may have been to blame. Two different strains of Salmonella were implicated, known to cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps and more serious illness in the young and old.

Backyard chicken growing, particularly for eggs, is gaining popularity in cities as people long to get closer to their food and eat local. However, CDC warned, it doesn't guarantee protection for the diseases chickens can typically carry and spread. “Information that promotes raising chickens touts the birds as being good pets, stress relievers, and easy to keep,” says CDC. “Most people…choose to keep flocks because they believe the meat and eggs they grow will be safer and less expensive than store purchased products. [However], keeping chickens poses a potential health risk.”

Live poultry, even if they appear to be perfectly healthy and clean, are a common source of infective Salmonella, CDC cautions. The CDC warning sounded particular alarm about young children handling chickens, as well as handling chicks at farm stores selling the birds. Almost one in three of those infected by last year's outbreak were under the age of 5.

Have a prespective on the new food movement you'd like to share with fellow Nebraska grocers? Use the section below to leave your comment.

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