Featured Image for Organic Foods - Part 3: The Safety Question

This third article in our series on organic foods examines whether organics are safer than non-organic food.  Part 1 of our series (Organic Foods – The Low-Down) examined what legally makes a food organic (you might be surprised). Part 2, Meat Me in the Produce Aisle, examined some of the differences between organic and conventional foods.

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 things like 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 is currently available (all of the research notes how limited this data is), 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.  While the presence of microbiological contaminants may not vary much (if at all) between the two product types, 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 has 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.

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Food Sentry’s own data shows more than 50 organic food recalls in the past year in Canada and the United States.  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 in fact 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 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, antibiotics, etc., warrant purchasing organics to try and minimize your exposure to these substances.  This is a personal decision.  Our goal here is that the information we’ve provided can help you make a decision you are comfortable with.

Food Sentry analysts constantly review research in this and other areas and will update when new information becomes available.