This is part three in a series of three articles on organic foods originally published by Food Sentry on May 31, 2013. Part one is here: The Low-Down on Organic Foods. Part two is here: Organic vs. Non-Organic: What’s the Difference? Are organic food products safer than non-organic food products? Given the requirements set forth in the National Organic Program legislation, and based on what conventional wisdom says about pesticides and antibiotics, the logical assumption would be that organic food products are indeed safer and less risky than non-organic food products. Research into the safety differences between organic products and their non-organic counterparts, however, has basically concluded that, given what data are currently available (all of the research notes data limitations), it appears that the safety differences between the two product categories are not as vast as logic and conventional wisdom might dictate. According to recent studies and the limited data on which they are based:

  • Pesticide residues are generally present on both organic and non-organic produce, and, on average, appear to be present in lower concentrations on organic products. However, while it seems obvious that food is healthier when not contaminated by pesticide residues, there is very limited/insufficient data available from reputable studies showing that legal pesticide residues pose any actual harm to humans when ingested at the levels permitted by law. Most of the studies tend to agree that any benefits gained from the reduction of exposure to pesticide residues achieved by consuming organic products are negligible. Know that this is a contentious area among scientists, with strong agendas in play.
  • Microbiological contaminants (e.g., bacteria such as E. coli) are generally present on both organic and non-organic products in varying degrees. Some research has found that organics have lower microbiological contamination, while other research has found the opposite. The presence of microbiological contaminants may not vary much (if at all) between the two product types; however, there is a lower incidence of antimicrobial-resistant strains on organic products.
  • Toxic metal contamination of organic produce has been found to be similar to that of non-organic produce, and most of the research has found the differences to be negligible.
  • Food additives are also limited in organic products and are therefore generally present in lower quantities than in non-organic products. However, most approved food additives don’t appear to be toxic when used in conformance with established limits.
  • Other contaminants such as nitrates (found in synthetic fertilizers) appear to be lower, on average, in organic products, though they are still present. Some scientists have cited various instances in which organic foods have higher levels of secondary metabolites (e.g., polyphenolic compounds, antioxidants) as a positive feature. Others have indicated that this may pose a health risk due to the supposed increased presence of naturally occurring toxins (which some research has suggested are equally as potent as synthetic toxins), resulting from an increase in the plant’s use of natural defense mechanisms.

We cannot emphasize enough that, as it stands, many of the research conclusions with regard to organic vs. non-organic product safety are premature. All of the studies cite a lack of data as a limiting factor in their conclusions, but with the data that have been collected, these are the assumptions that have been logically made. You might be surprised at the above conclusions, but organic foods are a hot-button item in both the commercial and scientific sectors, as well as among consumers. Our review of the science so far indicates that, in spite of what you may hear, there is still a great deal of ambiguity in the data regarding the nutritional value and health benefits of organic food. Food Sentry’s own data show more than 50 organic food recalls in the past year in Canada and the U.S. The reported contaminants have included Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, cadmium and mycotoxins. It’s worth knowing that even though a great deal of care may be taken in growing and harvesting the food, contamination can be introduced anywhere in the production process, and organic foods are not immune to this problem. The safety answer Based on currently available data, there is not much evidence showing that organic products are wholly safer than non-organic products. The fact of the matter is that there is still a great deal of research that needs to be done before any definitive conclusions can be drawn about safety differences. In the meantime, however, what can you do to maximize your food’s safety and mitigate risks? In general, the same rules that apply to non-organic food apply to organic products as well:

  • Wash and scrub your produce thoroughly prior to consumption;
  • Keep perishables refrigerated and be wary of perishables left out at room temperature for more than two or three hours;
  • Keep meats separate from produce during preparation;
  • Do not use foods that appear moldy or that have passed their expiration dates;
  • Cook meats and eggs thoroughly prior to consumption;
  • And, of course, wash your hands prior to, and after, handling food products.

Until further research is performed, what you as an individual ultimately have to decide when considering the purchase of organic products is whether or not the potential risks posed by substances used in non-organic food production such as pesticides, synthetic chemicals/additives and antibiotics, etc., warrant purchasing organics to try and minimize your exposure to these substances. This is a personal decision. Our goal here is to provide you with information that can help you make a decision with which you are comfortable.

  • Michael Bulger

    Conventional farms use the vast majority of raw animal applied to US crop fields. In fact, the rules of organic specify how manure must be composted, and don’t allow raw manure to be placed in crop areas unless there will be an extended period of time before it could come in contact with harvestable, edible crops.

    Conventional farms don’t currently have such federal regulations, although they will if the Food Safety Modernization Act’s produce rules ever get finalized. These new rules for “biological soil amendments” demonstrate how organic agriculture is often ahead of the curve from a technological/scientific standpoint, despite the stereotype that it is “backwards” or “anti-science”.

  • farmber

    ACTUALLY, under the Ntional Organic Program certified organic farmers are the only ones PROHIBIted from using manure on crops. But there are no such rules for conventional farms where using/disposing raw manure on cropland is common practice…

  • Rachel

    I’m disappointed in the lack of discussion of the impact on farm workers and the environment. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is a result of conventional farming. You can’t tell me that’s as safe as organic.

  • Kelly

    Of course organic farms use manure as fertilizer (but they try like the devil to distract us from the stinky dirty issue by changing the subject to lying about conventional farms which nobody asked about in the first place). “Organic” explicitly forbids benefits of conventional fertilizers so manure is the only option except to grow non-food legume crops and plow those under (with icky obsolete erosion-causing moldboard plows, no less). But plowing legume crops under means taking land out of food production for a year or more every couple years or so (that’s why organic farming can be so darned hoggish of acreage). Sure, the organowhacktoids will rave on about how all the manure they use, every particle of it is magically composted into absolute safety (no cheaters or corner-cutters we are supposed to believe – ha! – and they probably have a bridge to sell us too). If we were ever forced to grow all our food “organically” we would have to have far more livestock to generate the needed manure PLUS we would have to chop down and compost our rainforests and woods at a frantic pace to make way for the destructive moldboard plow those organozealots tenaciously cling to (and there goes all our soil washed into the sea). It is even worse when organic farmers have too little fertilizer (which is most of the time) so their soils become depleted, then they need to hog up even MORE acreage to grow the same amount of stuff. This organic craze is only for people with more money than brains…and more manure than both combined. Just a silly expensive teenage fashion craze.

  • Michael Bulger

    Start at 205.203. Look at e(3): “The producer must not use… Sewage sludge (biosolids) …”

    The others are in there too, if you take the time to look around.

  • i try to buy organic with everything i buy and that is because i do not want GMO’s – i especially do not want weed killer in my food. GMO’s are not something you can just wash off – it is in the seed itself. depends on your prefernce you either believe in organics or you believe in Monsanto with his GMO’s

  • farmber

    Timmie — you don’t have to dig too deep to finf the Organic regs against using raw manure — plus there’s stringent rules for composting. Here’s a handy guide from the Organic Trade Assoc. There’s a lot more if you’re really interested…

    “No other agricultural regulation in the United States imposes such strict control on the use of manure.

    The U.S. regulations for organic production require that raw animal manure must be composted unless it is applied to land used for a crop not intended for human consumption; or is incorporated into the soil not less than 120 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion has direct contact with soil; or is incorporated into the soil not less than 90 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles. See 7 CFR 205.203 (c)(1) and (2).

    The requirements for making compost are regulated as well, and are designed to encourage soil health while minimizing risks to human health or the environment.

    What is the definition of compost?
    The use of manure in organic farm practices is covered in the National Organic Program Rule’s definition of compost (7 CFR 205.2):

    Compost. The product of a managed process through which microorganisms break down plant and animal materials into more available forms suitable for application to the soil. Compost must be produced through a process that combines plant and animal materials with an initial Carbon:Nitrogen ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1. Producers using an in-vessel or static aerated pile system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131 deg. F and 170 deg. F for 3 days. Producers using a windrow system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131 deg. F and 170 deg. F for 15 days, during which time, the materials must be turned a minimum of five times.

    Why is composted manure part of organic farming practices?
    Composted manure is a primary source of soil fertility for organic farmers. It offers a natural means to cycle plant nutrients. As such, animal manure forms an important part of organic soil fertility programs.
    (Source: B.P. Baker, M. Lipson, and S. Alterman. Organic Farmers Growing Practices. Santa Cruz, CA. California Certified Organic Farmers.)

    Organic farming practices are not based only on lists of materials that acceptable or unacceptable in organic products. Rather, organic farming strives to practice agriculture in a manner that achieves a balance similar to that found in natural systems. This includes a commitment to building or maintaining soil health practices through practices such as green manures, crop rotations and compost application. (Source: Organic Materials Review Institute, “Use of Manure, Compost and Sewage Sludge in the USDA/NOP Proposed Rule,” April 1998) “

    • timmy

      so in other words it’s not prohibited? – just has to be treated first.

  • Michael Bulger

    Sewage sludge refers to human waste. There are wastewater plants for cities that collect all the sewer waste, filter out the water, and then sell the “biosolids” that are leftover. The stuff is extremely rich in soil nutrients, but it raises issues of antibiotics, chemicals, and other undesirables that make their way into sewers. Those biosolids are not allowed in Organic ag.

    Manure, as it is dealt with under the Organic program, is animal manure. It either has to be composted, or applied in a way that it can’t come into contact with the edible portion of a plant that will be harvested in the next few months. The idea is that all the nasty pathogens in raw manure die off over the course of those months.

    The new Food Safety Modernization Act rules that are being worked on take a lot of ideas for dealing with manure from the Organic program. Until those new rules are in effect, non-organic growers don’t really have guidelines they have to follow for raw manure. They just have to hope they are doing it right, because if by some miracle an outbreak is traced to them, then they will be legally at fault.

    I hope this helps. There’s a lot of misinformation and back and forth on these types of issues. Especially on the internet. It’s always nice to see people trying to get to the bottom of it, but I must tell you that it’s not the easiest subject for someone who wants to cut through the nonsense and learn. Good luck!