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The Risky Nature of Organics

By John Berlau
Copyright 1999 Investor's Business Daily
March 3, 1999

Organic food is a booming business.

Once sold mostly in health food stores, most cities have at least one upscale supermarket that features natural and organic foods. Established grocery chains are also making room on their shelves for produce labeled organic.

Sales of organic products have grown at an average annual rate of 42% from 1992 to 1997, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organics are now a $ 4.2 billion annual industry - and that's estimated to climb to $ 6.6 billion by 2000.

Even though organic food frequently costs more - for example, organic produce costs an average of 57% more than food grown with man-made chemicals, according to Consumer Reports - many customers are willing to pay extra because they believe the food is safer and healthier.

"(Reducing) pesticides in the diet is probably a big reason why people buy organic food," said Kate Clancy, director of the Agriculture Policy Project at the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture in Greenbelt, Md.

It was in late February 10 years ago that CBS' "60 Minutes" set off a national panic by calling Alar, a chemical sprayed on apple trees to uniformly ripen fruit, "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply." Major health groups like the American Medical Association have since calmed some of the panic by calling fears about Alar exposure groundless.

In 1996, the prestigious National Research Council concluded that chemicals in the diet pose few health risks. "Based on existing exposure data," the council said, "the great majority of individual naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals in the diet appears to be present at levels below which any significant biological effect is likely."

The council also said that naturally occurring chemicals are much more prevalent in the diet than manmade ones.

Even so, there has been a flurry of warnings about the risks of pesticides over the past month. In a report titled "Do You Know What You're Eating," Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, suggested that people should buy organically grown foods because they "have substantially lower pesticide toxicity loading than conventionally grown counterparts."

Still, the report, which was partially funded by environmental funding groups like the W. Alton Jones Foundation, acknowledged that the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables "outweigh risks from the pesticides they contain." During the Alar scare, some environmental groups suggested that children could develop cancer if they ate produce that was sprayed with pesticides.

A report by the Environmental Working Group put it in even stronger terms: "Buy as much organic food as possible."

In a brochure called "Pesticides and Food," the Environmental Protection Agency likewise endorses organic products. It suggests buying organic food "to reduce your family's risk of pesticide exposure."

But some prominent food scientists and analysts are now saying that organic food is actually riskier than food grown with chemicals because of the way it is fertilized.

"Organic is now obviously the deadly choice in food," said Dennis Avery, director of global food issues at the Hudson Institute.

Avery, who served as a food analyst in the departments of State and Agriculture, says the composted animal manure used without chemical sprays and rinses to fertilize organic food may infect the food with deadly bacteria that are carried in feces.

"We have never recorded a death that anyone could attribute to pesticide residues," Avery said. Yet he notes that the Centers for Disease Control report hundreds of deaths caused by foodborne illnesses each year and estimates there are thousands more.

Though he doesn't attack organic food as strongly as Avery, Lester Crawford, director of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Georgetown University, is also concerned.

He said eating organic food carries "quite a risk" if farmers "use improperly composted manure.

"I can't see in the data that there is a problem (consuming food treated with pesticides)," said Crawford, a former division head at the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration.

"(Consumer groups) need to be scaring us about things like bacteria and viruses in the food, and they're still talking about pesticides," he added.

Over the past 15 years, deadly new strains of foodborne bacteria have emerged, such as E. coli 0157:H7. The CDC estimates that this strand of E. coli causes as many as 250 deaths and 20,000 illnesses per year.

While it was originally found in undercooked meat, more recently this strain of E. coli has been traced to produce. This poses more of a problem since many fruits and vegetables aren't cooked before they're eaten.

In 1996, two of the biggest outbreaks of food poisoning from this strain were traced to organic lettuce and unpas- teurized apple juice sold in natural food stores. Using a CDC listing of 488 confirmed cases of E. coli outbreaks, Avery points out that 24% of these cases in 1996 could be linked to consuming organic or natural foods.

"Admittedly, this is a limited data set," Avery said. But the numbers are large enough to promote more research, he says.

"I believed something that had less pesticides would not be unsafe for you," said Rita Bernstein of Wilton, Conn., whose two youngest daughters became ill in the lettuce outbreak. Her youngest daughter Haylee, who was 3 at the time, still suffers from reduced kidney function and vision problems.

The CDC has taken issue with some of Avery's interpretations. Paul Meade, a CDC epidemiologist, points out that no study has been done directly comparing the risks of foodborne illnesses from organic and conventionally grown foods.

Still, in 1997, CDC epidemiologist Robert Tauxe was quoted in the Journal of the American Medical Association as saying that organic food may pose special problems, because it is "grown in animal manure."

Later, he wrote in JAMA that composting standards for organic food weren't stringent enough to kill bacteria.

Fans and makers of organic foods went ballistic, according to the TV newsmagazine American Investigator. The program quoted an unnamed CDC official who said the agency was flooded with "nasty calls" from organic groups.

Tauxe also seems to have backtracked. He told American Investigator: "My concern is with manure, not organic (food)." When asked if manure makes organic food more dangerous, he responded: "I'm not sure." Tauxe would not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

The Hudson Institute's Avery suspects the "politically correct" status of organic foods may keep the CDC and other government bodies from talking about the risk of consuming them.

Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, says that Avery is citing examples that don't reflect the way organic foods are typically produced and sold.

She says the lettuce was labeled organic but it wasn't approved by an organic certification group. The unpasteurized apple juice was natural but not organic, she says, and pasteurized food can still be considered organic.

"I lump organic and natural together because they appeal to the same market," Avery said. He also notes that both natural and organic foods -including unpasteurized juices - are sold in organic stores.

DiMatteo says organic farmers don't just use manure to fertilize their crops. They also use "cover crops" like clover and they rotate crops.

She also says that many private and state government certification agencies require that manure be composted for at least 60 days at a temperature that will kill the bacteria.

But Dean Cliver, a professor of food safety at the University of California, Davis, says that as of now, there's no magic number of days of composting manure that will definitely kill E. coli 0157:H7. Tests show the bacteria can survive in manure for as long as 70 days, he says.

He says it's also hard to verify the temperature of composting manure.

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