Organic Consumers Association


Previous Page

Click here to print this page

Make a Donation!


Organic Point/Counterpoint
Does Organic Food Have Higher Levels of Fecal Contamination? (Point/Counterpoint)
Note to reader: The two news articles on this page represent differing viewpoints in regards to organics and are a part of OCA's new "Point/Counterpoint" series, providing readers with an opportunity to view arguments from both proponents and opponents of the organic industry.

Point (article #1): "Organic Food Has 'Significantly Higher' Contamination"

Counterpoint (article #2): "Study Confirms Safety of Organic Food But Agrichemical Front Group Attempts to Twist Findings"

Organic Food Has 'Significantly Higher' Contamination

Marc Morano,
Monday, June 14, 2004
A new study on food safety reveals that organic produce may contain a significantly higher risk of fecal contamination than conventionally grown produce.

A recent comparative analysis of organic produce versus conventional produce from the University of Minnesota shows that the organically grown produce had 9.7 percent positive samples for the presence of generic E. coli bacteria versus only 1.6 percent for conventional produce on farms in Minnesota.

The study, which was published in May in the Journal of Food Protection, concluded, "the observation that the prevalence of E. coli was significantly higher in organic produce supports the idea that organic produce is more susceptible to fecal contamination."

In addition, the study found the food-borne disease pathogen salmonella only on the samples of organic produce. There was no evidence found of the deadly strain of bacteria, E. coli, in either type of produce tested. The study looked at "preharvest" fruits and vegetables, not in retail stores.

The principle investigator of the University of Minnesota study, Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, told that "organic agriculture was more susceptible to carry fecal indicators."

"In many ways it is confirming what is believed, indeed, if you are using animal manure for fertilizer, the chances that you are going to get fecal bacteria on the product are greater," Diez-Gonzalez said.

The higher incidences of fecal contamination in organic foods were linked to heavy reliance on composted animal manure for fertilizer. Though conventionally grown produce may use some manure, it chiefly relies on chemical fertilizers. Past research has shown that animal manure is the principal source of pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli.

But Diez-Gonzalez cautioned that his study did not show organic produce to be a higher-risk food. "What the data is telling organic agriculture is there is some room for improvement," Diez-Gonzalez said.

"I don't think we need to be more concerned about organic vegetables. Based on the epidemiological evidence, we can say that both organic and conventional vegetables would pose the same [food-borne pathogen] risk for consumers," he added.

But Diez-Gonzalez did acknowledge that a higher presence of generic E. coli could mean higher risk for deadly pathogens. "We use E. coli as indicator that the potential could be there" for food-borne pathogens, Diez-Gonzalez explained.

Asked about how consumers who buy organic food for health reasons would react to his study showing higher fecal contamination, Diez-Gonzalez responded, "The consumer perception may not be very favorable and that is a potential consequence."

'Facade Is Crumbling'

Alex Avery, director of research and education at the free-market Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues, says the latest scientific study confirms years of research that organic produce may pose a higher risk for food-borne illness.

"Organic food activists, which include many activist researchers entrenched in liberal university halls, have claimed organic food superiority for years in their efforts to mold society and scare consumers into buying their politically correct fare. Now their farcical facade is crumbling," Avery told

Avery was particularly concerned about a possibly elevated risk for pathogens such as salmonella and the deadly E. coli in organic produce. E. coli can attack the kidneys and liver, causing severe internal damage and even death, especially among the elderly and young children.

Avery called the risk of contracting salmonella from organic food a "crap shoot," with the payoff being "diarrhea, typhoid fever, and Reiter's Syndrome that causes joint pain and painful urination that can last for years after the initial salmonella infection."

The University of Minnesota study found salmonella in one sample of organic lettuce and one sample of organic green peppers. The researchers collected 476 Minnesota produce samples from 32 organic farms and 129 samples from eight conventional farms. The produce analyzed included unwashed tomatoes, lettuce, green peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, apples and strawberries.

The study reported that "an increasing number of gastrointestinal disease outbreaks have been linked to the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables," accounting for 148 outbreaks between 1990 and 2001.

'You Can't Wash It Off'

The study found organic lettuce had the highest rate of fecal contamination, with a rate of over 22 percent. Avery says consumers could not assume they can simply "wash off" the fecal matter from the lettuce.

"Past research shows that E. coli can enter into the lettuce through the roots and be inside the lettuce, meaning you can't wash it off," Avery said.

The controversy over the safety of organic food began in 1997, when Robert Tauxe, chief of the food-borne illness division of the Centers for Disease Control, addressed pathogens that thrive in manure. Tauxe was quoted in the Journal of the American Medical Association as saying, "Organic means a food was grown in animal manure."

The article in the 1997 Journal of the American Medical Association implicated "organically grown, unprocessed foods produced without ... pesticides or preservatives" as an increasing source of food-borne illness.

The nationally syndicated television news program American Investigator also quoted the Food and Drug Administration's Virlie Walker as warning Americans, "Most especially at risk [for food borne pathogens] are your organic products because they could be fertilized with manure."

Walker, the spokesperson for the FDA's Denver district, told the news program in June 1998, "We do encourage folks to pay special attention to cleaning their organic products."

In 2000, ABC's John Stossel, followed up with a similar television report on 20/20 about the potential bacterial dangers of organic produce.

Diez-Gonzalez believes his findings of increased fecal contamination in organic food will not surprise consumers "if they have been following the media."

"Most likely, [our study] is going to serve to prove that some in media were right in terms of the E. coli, the fecal contamination, but not in terms of pathogens," Diez-Gonzalez said.

'Lightening Rod for Public Officials'

Avery sees the issue of organic food politics as being too hot to handle for most food regulators.

"Organic food production has become a lightening rod for public officials. The CDC does not want to touch this with a 10-foot pole," Avery said.

Referring to the CDC's Tauxe and his comments about organic food in 1997, Avery said the organic lobby "went ballistic and inundated the CDC with phone calls."

"This research continues to raise the red flags that have been raised in the past by credible food safety experts like Tauxe at the CDC. How many red flags have to be raised in order to get stricter manure regulations?" Avery asked.

The Truth About Pesticides

Avery also believes that the driving force behind organic produce, the fear of chemical pesticides, is completely unwarranted.

"The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, found in 1999 that the cancer risk from pesticide residue is theoretically lower than the risk from naturally occurring carcinogens. Both types are too low to be appreciable cancer risks," Avery explained.

"We are still looking for the first cancer death victim from pesticide residues. But we have several examples of children killed by pathogenic bacteria on organic produce," he added.


Study Confirms Safety of Organic Food
But Agrichemical Front Group Attempts to Twist Findings

From: Cornucopia Institute

Contact: Mark Kastel 608.625.2042
Will Fantle 715-839-7731

The same right-wing think tank that conspired with John Stossel of ABC News, in an erroneous attempt to discredit organic food (subsequently forcing an apology from the network), is at it again. The Hudson Institute, and its father and son team of Dennis and Alex Avery, are attempting to spin a new report that actually concluded there was no "statistically different" risk in the pathogenic contamination of organic food verses its conventionally produced counterparts.

"For years, the Averys¹ have been banging the drum trying to suggest to consumers that organic food is somehow dangerous," said Mark Kastel, Director of the Organic Integrity Project at The Cornucopia Institute. "In this case, the study ­ or any study ­ is evidently enough ammunition for them to begin their indiscriminate potshots."

The report in question, published in the May issue of Journal of Food Protection, looked at produce grown on conventional and organic Minnesota farms during 2002. Less than 5 percent of the produce from conventional and organic farms showed contamination with any of the tracked pathogens in question, and that was before washing at the wholesale level, peeling off outer leaves, or a thorough washing once the produce arrives in the home of the ultimate consumer.

"This study was primarily designed to look at the use of composted manure verses chemical fertilizers at the farm level. The authors of this report intentionally did not concern themselves with what happened once the produce was washed and left the farm," Kastel said.

According to Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, the report's chief author and faculty member at the University of Minnesota, "I had a very heated discussion with Alex Avery of the Hudson Institute. They were very dissatisfied with our findings and told me that our interpretations were not 'correct.' They told me I should have known better than to look for E. coli 0157:H7, because we wouldn't find any."

Dr. Diez-Gonzalez is not surprised to learn that the Hudson Institute, with its long record and the backing of agribusiness giants like Monsanto and DuPont, is now trying to use the independently funded, University of Minnesota data to discredit organic farming.

Commenting on the Diez-Gonzalez study, Alex Avery called eating organic food ³a crap shoot² and warned that potential cases of diarrhea, typhoid fever and Reiter¹s Syndrome await its consumers. ³This statement is total a fabrication and a gross distortion of the Diez-Gonzalez study, charged Kastel. ³Alex Avery will say anything in his petty little war against organic food and farming²

The only criticism of the research, levied by The Cornucopia Institute, was that nearly 80 percent of the samples taken during the study came from organic farms and only 20% from conventional operations. "If conventional produce was represented as a higher percentage of the total, maybe the findings would have looked even more favorable, in terms of the compareable safety of organic products," said the Cornucopia's Kastel. The conventional sampling was also extremely light in terms of the produce items that were most susceptible to contamination (leafy greens and lettuce).

According to Dr. Diez-Gonzalez, investigators are attempting to include more conventional produce in the second and third year of their research.

"One of the positive findings from the Minnesota study is that the potential for contamination on farms certified as organic by the USDA, under the federal supervisory program which went into effect in 2002, is demonstrably lower than for farms that call themselves organic but are not certified,² noted Kastel.

Federal law now mandates that any commercial organic producer must be inspected on an annual basis. "It is not surprising that the best management practices take place on certified farms where the operators are highly engaged, educated and conforming to the strict regulations in terms of the use of composted animal manure,² Kastel added. "The results are higher quality and safer produce for the consumer."