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Organic food: worth the price?

"If you eat food, you eat pesticides."

You can't state it more simply than the Environmental Working Group does. The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group is only one link in a chain stretching back to Rachel Carson's groundbreaking 1962 expose Silent Spring, which alerted the nation to the devastating impact of the indiscriminate use of DDT and other pesticides.

Maybe the message has finally gotten through.

Organic food has hit the mainstream. And it's not just upscale marketers like Whole Foods. When Wal-Mart introduces its own organic brands, you know America is taking notice.

That's good news--for the insect and animal life that pesticides wipe out and for the soil, air, and rivers that pesticides pollute.

But is it worth the extra price for consumers?

"Most people start off choosing organic foods for selfish reasons," notes Mark Kastel, co-founder of the pro-organic Cornucopia Institute, based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin. "And there's nothing wrong with wanting to protect your family."

Avoiding potentially unsavory chemicals--like synthetic pesticides and other pollutants, hormones, and antibiotics--is the main attraction of organic. But a growing number of people are willing to pay more for organic for other reasons, says Kastel. "They want to support a different kind of environmental ethic, a more humane animal husbandry, or economic justice for family farmers."

In other words, they're concerned about the way some conventional farm operations treat their animals. Or by the way pesticides can kill off birds and seep into waterways, poisoning local frogs and fish. Or they want to do their part to help stem global warming. (Organic agriculture uses about 30 percent less fossil fuel than conventional agriculture.)

No matter why you buy organic food, here's what you need to know.

Are pesticide levels in foods harmful?

It's not clear. Pesticides are poisons. When given to animals in high doses, they can cause cancer, nervous system damage, and birth defects.

And people who work with pesticides-farmers and crop-duster pilots, for example--appear to have higher rates of asthma, Parkinson's disease, leukemia, myeloma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and cancers of the lip, stomach, skin, brain, and prostate. (1)

According to the Agricultural Health Study, men who applied pesticides for a living in Iowa had a 41 percent increased risk of prostate cancer, while farmers who applied their own pesticides had a 17 percent increased risk. (2)

Of the 900 or so active ingredients in the pesticides that can legally be used in the United States, some 20 cause cancer in animals and are classified as possible human carcinogens.

Yet there is remarkably little data on the risk to consumers from eating fruits and vegetables that contain pesticide residues.

"I don't know any epidemiologic studies that tell you what the risk from pesticides in food is for an adult," says Aaron Blair, an epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

There are studies on older organochlorine pesticides like DDT, chlordane, and heptachlor, which are stored in body fat. Most of them were banned from use in agriculture decades ago, but residues still show up in the soil. And those pesticides are bad news.

"It doesn't look like they're related to breast cancer," says Blair. "But they probably are related to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and might be related to prostate cancer."

Those older pesticides "weren't very toxic," Blair points out. "But they last a really long time."

That meant that DDT and the other organochlorine pesticides remained in the environment for decades.

After they were banned, "we shifted to some things that are more toxic but that don't last very long," says Blair.

Almost all the pesticides used now in farming--like organophosphates, carbamates, and pyrethroids--are "non-persis tent." That means they're metabolized quickly and your body doesn't store them.

"You get exposed and a few days later they're gone from your system," says Blair. "They come and go very quickly."

But, he adds, "that doesn't mean they can't do any harm. It's just that when there's no trace of the chemical any more, monitoring people for harm is really hitor-miss."

Another reason it's so tough to pin down any link between pesticides and cancer or other health problems is that we're constantly exposed to tiny doses of hundreds of pesticides and other chemicals. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to detect any damage--particularly if it's subtle--from any one or two of them.

"I'd bet my first grandchild that 250 million Americans out of 300 million are being exposed to six or more pesticides a day," says Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center, a pro-organic think tank in Boulder, Colorado.

"But if you're a healthy adult, there are many things that pose greater health risks, like your saturated fat and salt in take and exposure to tobacco smoke."

And it's reassuring that people who eat more fruits and vegetables--with or without pesticides--have a lower risk of heart disease. They're also less likely to suffer cancers of the colon, mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, and lung, according to the National Cancer Institute. (3)

But the impact of pesticides on the developing brain and nervous system may be another story.

In late May, many of the world's leading environmental scientists warned that babies exposed to common chemicals, including pesticides, may be more susceptible to attention deficit disorder, asthma, cancer, and other health problems. (4)

"Protecting the fetus and small child as highly vulnerable populations," the scientists urged, "should not await detailed evidence on individual hazards to be produced."

Benbrook concurs. "We really need to take that one risk factor off the dinner table," he says. "There just shouldn't be any pesticides in baby food."

That doesn't necessarily mean it has to be organic. "For example, even though the farmers growing for Gerber are using pesticides," Benbrook notes, "they've been doing it for years in a way that the finished product almost always has no detectable residues."

Should healthy adults also try to avoid pesticides?

"My guess is that most of the pesticides in foods don't do a lot of harm," says the NCI's Aaron Blair. "But I do believe that it's inconceivable they do nothing."

The bottom line: it can't hurt to avoid pesticides, but you're better off eating fruits and vegetables with pesticides than not eating fruits and vegetables.

Are organic foods likely to have fewer pesticides?

Yes. About three-quarters of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables contain tiny amounts of pesticides--often more than one. (5)

The opposite is true for organic produce, according to a 2002 study by Consumers Union and the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) of Eugene, Oregon. The study looked at more than 94,000 samples of 20 crops tested by the USDA, the state of California, and Consumers Union.

"Only about one in four organic fruits and vegetables contained a pesticide," says OMRI Research Director Brian Baker. "And when a residue was detected on organic food, the amount was usually smaller than what's found on conventional food."

Why would 25 percent of organic produce have any pesticides at all?

"It isn't zero because of back ground contamination and pesticide drift," says Baker. For example, although the toxic pesticides DDT and dieldrin were banned from agriculture decades ago, traces persist in the soil and contaminate anything that's grown in it, organic or conventional.

Pesticides can also drift in the wind from nearby conventional farms. "In most states, the conventional farmer's right to spray pesticides outweighs the organic farmer's right not to get sprayed on," says Baker.

And as more food is grown organically, more of it may become contaminated with pesticide drift.

"Historically, organic farms have been fairly isolated," says Baker. "They started in generally marginal areas that weren't as commercially viable as heavily farmed conventional areas like the Central Valley or the Salinas Valley in California."

As conventional farms switch over to organic, they're more likely to be near major agricultural areas and "are more likely to be exposed to aerial spraying and other applications that disperse pesticides much greater distances," says Baker.

There's another reason that some foods labeled "organic" could contain pesticides. They're not really organic.

"Quite frankly, fraud is a problem," says Baker.

The University of Minnesota's Jim Riddle agrees. "Any time there's money to be made, there's a strong temptation for fraud, for mislabeling, for people to take advantage of the system. In my experience, however, such instances are extremely rare." Riddle, an organic foods inspector for 20 years, has trained inspectors all over the world.

In the 2002 study that compared conventional and organic foods, "there were some samples of organic food with pesticides that we felt couldn't be explained by background contamination," says Baker.

"On the other hand," he adds, "there were very few samples that showed up like that, so it's not common."

Are organic fruits and vegetables less likely to have E. coli or other bugs?

Probably not. "We don't have any information on the relative risk of organic versus conventionally grown foods from the point of view of microbial contamination," says Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

In 2006, raw spinach that was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 killed four people and sickened nearly 200. It was grown on a central California farm that was switching from conventional to organic agriculture. While the spinach couldn't be marketed as organic (because the land was still in transition), it was grown using organic techniques.

California and federal investigators found the same strain of E. coli in river water and in feces from cattle and wild pigs on a ranch within a mile from where the spinach was grown. The investigators never figured out how the E. coli got from the ranch to the spinach.

Are organic fruits and vegetables more nutritious?

There's no good evidence. "The evidence is weak at best that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients," says Health Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration. "There are few well-controlled studies that compare both."

In the few that have, organic produce was no higher in beta-carotene, vitamin A, potassium, and other nutrients that are plentiful in fruits and vegetables. (6)

One possible exception: some organic produce had slightly higher levels of vitamin C. But roughly a third of the samples tested had no more C--and some had even less--than conventionally grown foods.

"The scientific evidence cannot support or refute the perception that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods," concludes Health Canada.

(According to a new meta-analysis, organic produce has higher levels of several nutrients in addition to vitamin C, says the Organic Center's Charles Benbrook. But the study hasn't yet been published.)

The bottom line: "For the average healthy adult who eats a pretty good, varied diet, and who is getting adequate servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, any extra nutrients in organic food may not alter their health to any significant extent," concedes Benbrook.

Are organic beef, poultry, eggs, and milk less contaminated?

It depends. Here's the rundown:

* Pesticides. Pesticides are very rarely found in beef, poultry, eggs, or milk, whether they're organic or non-organic, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture research chemist Steve Lehotay. The USDA regularly tests samples from slaughterhouses, dairy farms, and egg processing plants for residues of 121 different pesticides.

When the feds do find something, the residue is usually a byproduct of chemicals that were banned years ago but that persist in the environment. Organic producers wouldn't normally be able to avoid those pollutants any better than non-organic producers.

* Foodborne germs. Organically raised animals are no less likely to be contaminated with E. coli or other germs.

"There's no evidence that the prevalence of foodborne pathogens is less on organic animal foods than on conventional animal foods," says Qijing Zhang of Iowa State University in Ames. Zhang is a professor of veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine.

"It's no mystery why," he says. "Disease-causing bacteria are spread to animals by multiple routes, such as insects, birds, and water. Organic farms are equally vulnerable to invasion by pathogens."

On the other hand, animals on organic farms live under less-crowded conditions, which might reduce animal-to-animal transmission, Zhang notes.

* Chemical contaminants. Since environmental contaminants like PCBs and dioxins are spread through the air and water, there's no reason to think that they're less likely to settle on an organic farm than on a conventional one. In fact, organically produced animals may be more exposed if they spend more time in pastures or eat more hay and silage.

"Those animals are much more exposed to materials like dioxins, which are atmospherically deposited onto grasses and soils," says Matt Lorber of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "They also consume earthworms and insects that have absorbed and concentrated dioxins from the soil."

Lorber and his colleagues at the EPA recently found that hay and silage had twice the concentration of dioxins as corn and soybean meal. Organically raised animals consume more hay and silage and less corn and soybean meal than conventionally raised animals.

* Antibiotic residues. Organic producers are prohibited from giving their animals antibiotics to stimulate growth, so residues of drugs aren't a problem in organic meat, poultry, milk, or eggs. And when organic farmers give an animal antibiotics to treat an infection, the meat, milk, or eggs from the animal can't be marketed as organic.

But antibiotic residues aren't much of a problem in non-organic animals either. Rules require farmers to stop giving feed with antibiotics to their conventionally raised animals for some period before slaughter, and tests rarely detect traces of antibiotics or other drugs in conventionally produced meat, poultry, milk, or eggs. (7)

(The exception: veal, which comes from calves that are taken from their mothers soon after birth. Because of their living conditions, the calves are susceptible to a host of diseases, so veal producers routinely give them antibiotics and other drugs. Residues of antibiotics show up in about 9 percent of veal samples tested by the USDA.)

The four largest conventional poultry producers--Tyson Foods, Gold Kist, Perdue Farms, and Foster Farms, which account for 40 percent of the nation's poultry supply--say that they don't give their birds antibiotics to stimulate growth or to prevent disease in crowded pens.

* Antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Conventional cattle, pig, and poultry farms can use antibiotics both therapeutically and "subtherapeutically,." that is, to stimulate growth or prevent disease.

When bacteria are exposed to those antibiotics, some survive. When they reproduce, their offspring are also resistant to the antibiotics.

If you happen to become infected with the resistant bacteria and your doctor prescribes one of those antibiotics, the drug won't work effectively.

Organic farms are less hospitable to antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventional farms.

"In general, there are fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria on animals raised organically," says Iowa State's Qijing Zhang.

"Multiple factors may contribute to the difference," he adds, "and one of them is the lack of use of antibiotics on organic farms."

What Does it All Mean?

To a farmer, the word "organic" means healthy soil. To most consumers, it means no pesticides.

How do organic farmers defend their corn, spinach, etc., against pests? Among other things, they rotate crops, use plant varieties that are resistant to predators, nurture habitats for the natural enemies of pests, and release helpful bacteria.

Here's what organic and other terms mean legally:

* Organic fruits & vegetables were grown without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or sewage sludge and haven't been genetically engineered or irradiated.

* Organic beef & chicken come from animals that weren't the offspring of cloned animals. They were raised on 100% organic feed, were never given growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs, and their meat was never irradiated.

* Organic milk comes from animals that, for at least the past 12 months, were fed 100% organic feed and weren't given antibiotics or growth hormones like rBST.

* Organic eggs come from hens that were fed 100% organic feed and were never given growth hormones or antibiotics.

* Organic seafood doesn't mean a thing, since the USDA hasn't defined the term.

* Cage-free eggs come from hens that were not confined to cages and that may or may not have had access to the outdoors. They're not necessarily organic.

* Free range or free roaming poultry have access to the outdoors, but for no minimum time. They're not necessarily organic. Cage-free poultry doesn't mean anything, since most chickens grown for meat are kept indoors (but cage-free) until they're transported to slaughter.

* No hormones administered can appear on beef labels if the producer can document that the animals were raised without hormones. Hormone-free is an illegal claim, since all animals produce their own hormones.

* No antibiotics added can appear on a label if the producer can document that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

* Natural (or All natural) meat or poultry products contain "no artificial ingredients and are no more than minimally processed." They're not necessarily organic, though some supermarkets try to make them appear to be.

* Access to the outdoors. All organically raised animals are supposed to have it. Critics charge that the rules are too vague, and that animals raised in huge organic operations don't get to move around enough outside.

Packaged Foods

* 100% Organic. All ingredients are organic.

* Organic, At least 95% of the ingredients are organic.

* Made with Organic Ingredients, At least 70% of the ingredients are organic.

Can You Trust Organic?

"Anything sold as organic in the United States has to be produced and processed according to our standards, regardless of where in the world it was grown," says former organic inspector Jim Riddle. "Every operation in the chain, from the producers to the processors, has to be inspected at least annually."

Riddle is a former organic farmer who served on the USDA's National Organic Standards Board. He's co-author of the International Organic Inspection Manual.

The USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) approves certification agencies--usually government offices or private companies--which then send inspectors to make sure that organic farms and food processors are following the rules.

A product can be labeled organic only if the farm or processing plant has passed inspection by one of these certification agencies. That's how the NOP's staff of around 10 people monitors more than 20,000 organic growers, ranchers, processing plants, and others in the U.S. and abroad.

According to Riddle, "inspectors visit all fields, where they examine soil quality, crop health, weeds, pests, and diseases. And they look at border areas for contamination from adjoining land." The inspectors also examine the farm's buildings and equipment, looking for signs of prohibited chemicals.

"A great deal of time is spent reviewing the operation's production, harvest, storage, and sales records," Riddle notes. "And the inspector conducts a sample audit to determine that the operation is selling no more crop as organic than could have been produced from the acres under certified organic production."

If the inspector suspects that the farm may be cooking the books, says Riddle, he or she can be authorized to conduct unannounced followup inspections.

At least that's the way it's supposed to work.

Last year, Paula Lavigne, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News who is now at the Des Moines Register, tried to determine how common cheating is. The NOP is supposed to post violations on its Web site, but it doesn't. So in April 2006, Lavigne filed a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of reports of violations. By April 2007, "they had provided only some of the information," she notes.

Meanwhile, Lavigne says that she learned independently--from talking to more than 100 farmers, ranchers, inspectors, lawyers, and legislators--that some certifiers hadn't reported violations to the USDA and that the USDA hadn't penalized certifying companies that repeatedly failed to do their inspections properly.

Shortly after an article by her that was critical of the NOP appeared in the summer of 2006, the USDA--for the first time--fired a certifying agency.

Importing Organics

"By far, the bulk of the products being sold in the United States as organic are produced in the United States," says former organic inspector Jim Riddle. "Your grains, a lot of the fruits and vegetables, most of the meats, and all of the dairy products are domestic, so only around 5 percent of organic products are being imported."

Still, the percentage is rising. And that worries some people.

"This is politically touchy, but with imported food there are some definite concerns," says Brian Baker of the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). "Other countries do not have the regulatory oversight on pesticides that we have here."

In the 2002 study of organic and conventional foods by OMRI and Consumers Union, "samples of Mexican produce labeled as organic had levels of organophosphate pesticides that were above what one would expect if it were caused by drift," he notes.

"The levels were closer to what one would expect if it was a direct intentional application. I know that there are plenty of good, honest organic farmers in Mexico, and their reputation could be hurt by those who are not."

Mark Kastel, co-founder of the pro-organic Cornucopia Institute, agrees that organic imports could be a problem. "We know there's a little less integrity to the process in some other countries," he notes.

In the United States, every organic farm is supposed to be inspected every year. "But in some countries, a group of farms may have one certification, so each farm might not get inspected every year," says Kastel.

The biggest concern: China, which claims to have converted 8.6 million acres to organic farmland. That's more than four times the organic farmland of the entire United States. But the USDA reported in 2006 that "widespread pollution, high pest infestations, and a long history of heavy chemical fertilizer and pesticide use make growing crops organically difficult in most areas of China."

Fred Gale, the USDA economist who co-wrote that report, was even blunter when talking to the media. He told the Dallas Morning News last year that it was "almost impossible to grow truly organic food in China" because the soil, water, and air is so polluted.

"I think that a high level of scrutiny is deserved," says organic foods inspection expert Jim Riddle, "when organic products are coming in from economies such as China, which have demonstrated a lack of respect for following international rules on intellectual property and where high levels of corruption and environmental contamination occur."

Kastel agrees. "The pollution problems are endemic there and there are serious questions about organic certification," he says. "Despite that, the USDA is just taking people's word for what's going on."

That may be changing. A USDA spokesperson said last April that the agency was scheduling on-site inspections of the organic certifiers that operate in China.

The Cornucopia Institute isn't waiting. It's sending its own people to China to investigate organic certification there.

Widespread safety problems with conventional foods from China don't inspire confidence in its organic products. U.S. Customs agents reject about 75 food shipments from China every month, even though they inspect less than 1 percent of imports.

Earlier this year, border inspectors blocked Chinese peas contaminated with pesticides, dried plums with illegal food additives, pepper tainted with Salmonella, and frozen crawfish that were filthy.

And Chinese authorities have acknowledged that wheat gluten and rice protein that were shipped to the United States earlier this year were tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical that some Chinese manufacturers add to food to make it look richer in protein. The gluten was used to make pet food, which sickened thousands of cats and dogs here. Some of the melamine ended up in hog, poultry, and fish feed.

A handful of U.S. companies have taken matters into their own hands.

"I can flat-out guarantee you that those organic snap peas from China that Whole Foods is selling have had a lot more scrutiny on them than what might minimally be required to get organic certification in China," says the Organic Center's Charles Benbrook.

Still, when it comes to organic imports, consumers have to trust farmers and inspectors in other countries. It's hard enough to do that with organic broccoli from California.

For more information about organic foods and for links to topics discussed in this article, go to


(2) "Prostate Cancer and Agricultural Pesticides," AHS-IA-2003-3.

(3) 1&did=2005&chid=21&coid=207&mid=.


(5) Food Addit. Contam. 19: 427, 2002.

(6) J. Altem. Compl. Med. 7:161, 2001.

(7) asp.

What's in Your Fruits & Vegetables?

Peaches almost always carry pesticide residues. Onions seldom do. Apples? Yes. Avocados? No.

If you want to avoid pesticides but don't want to buy everything organic, use this table to find out which organic produce makes the most difference. It was created by the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG).

EWG ranked the 43 most commonly consumed fruits and vegetables using the results of nearly 43,000 analyses for pesticides conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration from 2002 to 2004. It gave each fruit or vegetable a score based on:

* the percentage of samples that had detectable pesticides,

* the percentage of samples that had two or more pesticides,

* the average number of pesticides found on a sample,

* the average concentration of all pesticides found,

* the maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample, and

* the total number of pesticides found.

The worst offender? Peaches--97% were contaminated with pesticide residues. The average peach contained residues of three different pesticides.

"Peaches have a soft skin, and the pesticides tend to go right through into the pulp," explains the Organic Center's Charles Benbrook. "That's why soft-skinned fruits and vegetables have the worst residues compared to produce with thicker skins or peels."

One important shortcoming of the rankings: they don't take into account the toxicity of each pesticide, which is hard to quantify. So a fruit with a small amount of one toxic pesticide won't look as bad as another fruit with several, far less toxic pesticide residues. But the table is still useful as a measure of the fruit's "total pesticide load."

According to the EWG, you can lower your pesticide exposure by almost 90 per cent if you avoid "The Dirty Dozen" (the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables) and eat the 12 least contaminated instead.

Another option: buy organic. But whatever you do, you re better off eating fruits and vegetables with pesticides than not eating fruits and vegetables.
 % with 2
 % with or more
Fruit or Vegetable Score Pesticide Pesticides

The Dirty Dozen

Peaches 100 97% 87%
Apples 89 92% 79%
Sweet bell peppers 86 82% 62%
Celery 85 94% 80%
Nectarines 84 97% 85%
Strawberries 82 92% 69%
Cherries 75 91% 76%
Pears 65 87% 47%
Grapes (imported) 65 85% 53%
Spinach 60 70% 31%
Lettuce 59 59% 33%
Potatoes 58 81% 18%

Carrots 57 82% 48%
Green beans 53 65% 39%
Hot peppers 53 55% 28%
Cucumbers 52 73% 32%
Raspberries 47 48% 23%
Plums 45 56% 10%
Grapes 43 61% 22%
Oranges 42 83% 290%
Grapefruit 40 62% 23%
Tangerines 38 67% 33%
Mushrooms 37 60% 18%
Cantaloupe Cantaloupe 34 55% 20%
Honeydew melon 31 69% 14%
Tomatoes 30 47% 14%
Sweet potatoes 30 580% 10%
Watermelon 28 29% 14%
Winter squash 27 40% 13%
Cauliflower 27 72% 8%
Blueberries 24 28% 10%

The Consistently Clean

Papaya 21 24% 5%
Broccoli 18 28% 3%
Cabbage 17 18% 50%
Bananas 16 42% 2%
Kiwi 14 15% 3%
Sweet peas (frozen) 11 23% 2%
Asparagus 11 7% 1%
Mango 9 7% 1%
Pineapples 7 8% 1%
Sweet corn (frozen) 2 4% 0%
Avocado 1 1% 0%
Onions 1 0% O%

Source: Environmental Working Group.

Organic Scorecard

 Fruits, Meat, Milk,
Are Organic Foods vegetables, poultry, butter,
LESS LIKELY to: grains eggs cheese

Damage the YES YES YES

Have pesticide YES no difference no difference

Have antibiotic doesn't neither has neither has
residues? apply any any
 (except for

Have E. coli no difference no difference no difference
or other bugs?

Have more May have a bit no difference no difference
nutrients? more vitamin C
COPYRIGHT 2007 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007, Gale Group. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Schardt, David
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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