Organic is no safer or better than conventional. This is the findings of a systematic review recently published by Stanford University looking at the topic of whether or not food raised organically is superior to food raised by conventional methods.(1) This publication is encouraging to see, as the authors examined hundreds of studies on the topic, not just on a few hand-picked studies. Meta analysis is a powerful objective method for analyzing a collection of conflicting evidence on a scientific topic.
Why is this organic question important? The organic market is seeing a massive increase in sales. According to the paper, the organic sales market went from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $26.7 billion in 2010.(2,3) The debate over organic food continues to heat up. The cost of organic food is usually 2 to three time more. But is it worth the extra cost?
The systematic review looked at two relevant points about how we might define “better”.
The first point is whether or not organic meat has less food-borne pathogens than conventionally raised meat. In analyzing the various studies, the authors did not find any significant difference in the amount of food-borne pathogens present. For example, in chicken 67% of organic samples were contaminated with Campylobacter versus 64% of conventional samples. Salmonella contamination was 35% for organic chicken versus 34% for conventional and E. coli contamination was 65% of organic samples versus 49% of conventional samples.(4)
The second point is whether or not there is antibiotic resistance bacteria present in organic meat, and if the amount of antibiotic resistant bacteria is lower in organic meat. All types of meat, including organic, have the potential to have antibiotic resistant bacteria.(5) While the review reported that conventionally raised chicken and pork are 33% more likely to have antibiotic resistance than organic meat, the findings weren’t statistically significant.1 This means that there is simply not enough data to prove the difference is more than chance. Also, just because meat has antibiotic resistant bacteria, does not mean that harm will necessarily result. A long chain of events must happen for human health harm to occur. First, the antibiotic resistant pathogens need to survive each processing step as well as cooking. Then the consumer needs to ingest the resistant bacteria, and have illness as a result that required antibiotic treatment. The harm would only result if all of these things happened and the bacteria did not respond to the antibiotic therapy.(6)
Bottom line, today’s modern farmer is not going to wipe out the human race. WHEW!
1Smith-Spangler, et al. 2012. Are Organic Food Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?
Ann Intern Med 157:348-366.
2Dimitri, C. Oberholtzer L. 2009. Marketing U.S. Organic Foods: Recent Trends from Farms to Consumers. U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, Economic Information Bulletin no. EIB-58.
3Organic Trade Association. 2010. U.S. Organic Industry values at nearly $29 billion in 2010.
4Miranda JM, et al. 2008. Antimicrobial resistance in Escherichia coli strains isolated from organic and conventional pork meat: a comparative survey. European Food Research and Technology. 226:371-5.
5Adams, J.U. 2012. Drug-Resistant Bugs found in Antibiotic-Free Meat. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/01/organic-meat-superbugs/
6Hurd, H.S. et al. 2004. Public Health Consequences of Macrolide Use in Food Animals: A Deterministic Risk Assessment. Journal of Food Protection. 67(5):980-992.