Organic Food Safety

Is the risk of foodborne illness from contaminated organic food higher than the risk of adverse health effects from chemicals in conventionally grown food?

Many of us think that going organic is better. A good friend of mine is a complete believer. She buys all organic fruits and vegetables and frequently juices organic produce for her family. Recently, her little daughter had to be rushed to the hospital. Diagnosis: Salmonella in her bloodstream, also known as typhoid fever. While my friend will never know for certain what caused her daughter’s severe illness, it is possible that her little girl ingested contaminated food.

Organic produce contains a significantly higher risk of fecal contamination

Because organic farms use natural fertilizers (manure, compost) instead of synthetic or chemical fertilizers, their crops are at greater risk of contamination from certain bacteria, such as Ecoli.

In 2011, a novel strain of Escherichia coli O104:H4 bacteria caused a serious outbreak of foodborne illness in northern Germany.  31 people died and thousands were infected. This particular strain of ecoli had acquired the genes to produce Shiga toxins, present in organic fenugreek sprouts. Authorities traced the origins of the bacteria to an organic farm in northern Germany.

The Benefits – organic is more nutritious, contains fewer pesticides, is fresher and better for the environment

Some evidence suggests that organic production can boost key nutrients. A large meta-analysis published in 2014 found that organic crops have higher concentrations of antioxidants and other potentially beneficial compounds.  Organic foods also tend to be fresher as their shelf life is shorter than conventionally grown foods containing preservatives.  Organic farming practices promote environmental sustainability by using less energy and environmental contaminants and pesticides. Organic food is GMO-free. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered (GE) foods are plants whose DNA has been altered in ways that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding, most commonly in order to be resistant to pesticides or produce an insecticide.

So, what is better?

Some might argue that pesticides and chemical fertilizers actually protect us from foodborne illness and that the levels of contaminants from chemicals on our plates is so low that it will not cause any adverse health effects. That is probably true for most of us. However, an accumulated build-up of years of pesticide exposure is a “body burden” as it is medically known and could lead to health issues. Pesticides have been linked to some forms of cancer.

The FDA and the biotech lobby insist that GMOs  are safe, but many food safety advocates point out that no long term studies have ever been conducted to confirm the safety of GMOs and some animal studies have linked GMOs to internal organ damage, slowed brain growth, and thickening of the digestive tract. GMOs have also been found to increase food allergens and gastro-intestinal problems.

Not all conventionally grown foods come with a high chemical burden.

According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that analyzes the results of government pesticide testing in the U.S these conventionally grown foods are low in pesticides:

Asparagus, Avocado, Mushrooms, Cabbage, Sweet Corn, Eggplant, Kiwi, Mango, Onion, Papaya, Pineapple, Sweet Peas (frozen), Sweet Potatoes, Grapefruit and Cantaloupe

The following foods have the highest pesticide levels and should be bought organic:

Apples, Sweet Bell Peppers, Cucumbers, Celery, Potatoes, Grapes, Cherry Tomatoes, Kale/Collard Greens, Summer Squash, Nectarines (imported), Peaches, Spinach, Strawberries, Hot Peppers

Whether you buy organic or conventional, cleaning fruits and vegetables is important. Apple cider vinegar, for example,  is a natural  wash that helps to eliminate bacteria. Peeling the skin of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables can also help eliminate some pesticide residue.

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