Which Are Safer: Organic or Conventional Food Products?

OrganicAccording to the American Dietetic Association, both organic and conventional foods have good safety records although both have caused food-borne illness outbreaks that resulted in recalls. But let’s look at specific safety issues that the public has been concerned about and the arguments on either side.   


Pesticides: The central issue, the ADA says, is pesticide residues versus food-borne illness (what could be considered a matter of longer-term versus short-term safety). Says the ADA: “The USDA and other data sources show pesticide residues on most products are well below government-established thresholds, although typically are lower for most organic products.” Here’s what USDA-FDA.com has to say: “Most experts agree that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables poses a very small health risk.” But consumers who remain concerned about the long-term effects of a build-up of pesticides and additives still opt for organic. 


On the other hand, those who want to avoid the short-term misery of food-borne illness may distrust organic produce because some studies have shown that fertilizing with compost and/or animal manure (which many organic farmers use) and not using preservatives increase the risk of contaminating food and thereby causing illness. Furthermore, some scientists have expressed concern about the use of natural pesticides that may be more dangerous and environmentally degrading than the synthetic ones. 


Is it possible to buy conventional produce and still avoid consuming pesticide residue? Thick-skinned produce (such as squash and bananas) will be pesticide-free if washed thoroughly with water. Consumers who worry that washing won’t get rid of all chemical residue can peel some of their produce. For berries and other fruits and vegetables that don’t have removable skin (such as lettuce), some consumers feel safer with organic.


A 2004 University of Minnesota study found organic produce 6 times more likely to be contaminated with E.coli than conventional produce. Some scientists say the natural pesticides used in organic farming may be as much of a health risk as synthetic pesticides.  


Antibiotics: In conventional farming, animals may be given antibiotics in their feed as a way of preventing disease. The FDA and the USDA have both expressed concern that this practice may be contributing to the serious problem of human patients becoming resistant to more and more antibiotics. Lawmakers are looking into the possibility of curbing the use of nontherapeutic  antibiotics in raising livestock, an effort that the agribusiness opposes, arguing that tough restrictions would increase farmers’ costs without actually improving public health. According to food scientist  Dr. Catherine Cutter, the main reason people may be developing resistance to some antibiotics is overuse of them in their medical care; the effect of the antibiotics people may consume with their food may be minimal.  


Hormones: Then there’s the matter of hormones used in conventional  farming but not in organic farming. Six kinds of steroid hormones are currently approved by the FDA for use in food production, mostly sex hormones and synthetic growth promoters. Federal regulations allow these hormones to be used on growing cattle and sheep but not on poultry or hogs.  (They aren’t as useful in  increasing the weight of poultry or hogs.) The argument defending their use says that the levels of  these hormones may be slightly higher in the treated animals’ meat and milk, but they are still within the normal range known to occur in untreated animals. How much of these hormones get into our meat and milk? Scientists are still searching for better methods of measuring the steroid level of residues left in edible meat from a treated animal.


Hormones ingested via meat have been accused of causing these problems for girls--early puberty, breast enlargement, allergies, and increased cancer risk. However, food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein says, “There are way too many other chemical insults to humans to suggest that this is the only cause.” The research is insufficient to draw these conclusions. Large-scale studies are needed that compare people who consume meat and dairy products from hormone-treated animals with people who do not. The European Union has issued a ban on all meat from animals treated with steroid growth hormones, but the use of steroid hormones for beef cattle is permitted in Canada. However, the World Trade Organization has ruled that the EU ban amounts to a non-tariff trade barrier, and this issue is still in litigation.


Baby Food: The evidence is contradictory, but parents should keep in mind that both conventional and organic baby foods have a good safety record.


According to food toxicologist Carl Winter (quoted by the Food Marketing Institute, called the FMI), pesticides aren’t commonly found in baby food because the processing steps “are quite effective in breaking down trace residues of pesticides.” Moreover, he explains, pesticides are rarely used on crops grown for baby food because the appearance of the food is less important since it’s highly processed. 


On the other hand, a 2002 study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (described by FMI) found that children who eat organic foods are exposed to lower levels of pesticides commonly used on crops made into baby foods and juices. Whether this has any significant impact on these children’s health is unknown. 


Food Safety in General: The scientific abstract of a 2006 review of hundreds of studies (entitled “Organic food: Buying more safety or just peace of mind: a critical review of the literature”) concluded the following: “there is an absence of comparative data. Organic produce has less ‘agrochemical residue’ and lower levels of nitrates, but there’s no evidence that these factors make organic produce healthier. Comparing organic and conventional produce, studies found no differences in environmental contaminants such as cadmium and other heavy metals, which are likely to be present in food grown either way.” The authors of this review conclude that “organic” does not automatically equal “safe.” They end their abstract with this interesting statement: “At our present state of knowledge, other factors rather than safety aspects seem to speak in favor of organic food.” 


Now, four years after this review of the scientific literature was published, food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter tells us more research is still needed before any general conclusion can be drawn about the superiority of either method of producing and/or processing food, conventional or organic.


Some people buy organic or natural foods for specific health reasons. The FMI explains: “People with food allergies, chemical allergies, or intolerance to preservatives can substitute organic foods.” 


Even if your decision about whether or not to purchase organic food is based solely on the safety issue, the right answer is not obvious. If you believe that you shouldn’t eat something containing synthetic ingredients suspected of causing harm, you’ll probably have greater peace of mind buying organic. If you feel that, absent strong scientific evidence, claims of possible danger should be ignored, you’re more likely to feel content with less expensive, conventional food.




Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D. Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


eatright.org  American Dietetic Association  “Advising Consumers About Organic Foods and Healthful Eating”


envirocancer.cornell.edu  “Consumer Concerns About Hormones in Food”


usda-fda.com “Organic Foods”


Dixiediner.com  “Organic Food Industry Is Duping Consumers on Health, Environment Issues”


huffingtonpost.com “USDA Admits Link Between Antibiotic Use by Big Ag and Human Health”


www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov "Organic Food: Buying More Safety or Just a Piece of Mind?" A critical review of the literature.


huffingtonpost.com “FDA Calls Antibiotic Use in Farming ‘A Serious Public Health Threat,’ GOP Ignores Mounting Evidence”


FMI (Food Marketing Institute)  “Natural and Organic Foods” (Executive Summary)


shelflifeadvice.com  “Will Organic Baby Food Make Your Baby Healthier?”


shelflifeadvice.com  “Produce and Pesticides: Must They Always Go Together?”




usda-fda.com  “Organic Foods”


Related FAQs:

What Is Organic Food?


What Do the Various Organic Labels Mean? 


What Important Contributions Has the Organic Movement Made? 

Is Organic Food More Nutritious Than Conventional Food?


Does Organic Food Taste Better than Conventional Food?


Is Food Organically Grown Food Better for the Environment?


Are Organic Methods More Humane to Animals?


Does Conventional Food Have a Longer Shelf Life Than Organic?


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