Here’s a rundown of the evidence on contamination levels for organic and conventional products in five categories – milk, produce, meat, eggs and fish – to help you decide whether to buy organic or stick with conventional.
- Milk: Neither organic nor conventional milk contains antibiotics. By law, every truckload of milk, organic & conventional, is tested for veterinary drugs, including antibiotics, by trained dairy workers. Any load that tests positive is pulled out of the food supply. In 2012, that was one in 6,000 loads. Organic cows aren’t given antibiotics, and conventional ones are given them only for illness, and their milk isn’t used until after a withdrawal period.The U.S. Department of Agriculture tests for pesticide levels and has found them to be “very low.” The main culprit is DDE, a remnant of the agricultural pesticide DDT. DDT was banned years ago, but the USDA says “it’s very persistent and remains in many cropland soils. It is also in the body fat of all Americans and most farm animals and wildlife. Conventional and organic farmers can do little to avoid the DDE residues in milk. Over the next thirty to fifty years these residues will gradually decline below limits of detection.”Next is the concern of hormones in milk… The issue is that many conventionally raised dairy cows, unlike organic ones, are injected with BGH (Bovine Growth Hormones). However, the hormone itself is unlikely to survive pasteurization or human digestion and, even if it did, its mechanism doesn’t work in humans.Bottom Line: Organic milk has higher omega-3 fat levels, but probably not enough to make a difference. Exposure to pesticides, contaminants or hormones is not a significant risk in either organic or conventional milk.
- Produce: There are two issues for foods that grow in the ground: pesticides and pathogens. There is widespread agreement that organic produce, while not pesticide-free, poses a lower risk, however, that greatly depends on the organic farm and their methods of natural pesticide use. As for pathogens, Stanford University researchers found that E. coli contamination is slightly higher in organic produce than conventional produce.The best strategy to reduce risk from produce isn’t to buy either organic or conventional. Rather, it’s to cook your food! The Center for Disease Control notes, that leafy vegetables, led by lettuce and spinach are the #1 cause of food-borne illnesses.Bottom Line: There is no significant nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce. Some organic produce does have lower levels of pesticide residue, while others have tested higher.
- Meat: As with milk, the main issue here is omega-3 fats. Some organic meat and poultry have more of them than conventional products do. The reason is diet: Animals that eat more grass have lower fat levels overall and higher omega-3 levels than animals fed more grain. The bigger concern is pathogens. Studies of bacterial contamination levels of organic and conventional meat show widely varying results. These findings suggest that organic meat may be slightly more likely to be contaminated, possibly because no antibiotics are used. But conventional meat is more likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.Some organic consumers choose organic meat because organic farming is more humane than conventional farming. Sadly, this really isn’t the case. Although there are different regulations, the organic farming method is arguably only slightly more humane — organic labels on meat, dairy products, and eggs can be misleading. Take eggs for example, since I’ll be discussing that next. “Cage-free” eggs essentially means that the eggs came from a small barn crammed full of thousands of hens with no outdoor access. “Free-range” eggs means that the hens must have occasional access to an outdoor space- however the “outdoors” might be nothing more than a tiny dirt pen that’s only accessible through a small hole in the wall of the crammed barn, occasionally available to the hens. Conditions of living may be slightly better, but the animals are still slaughtered in a similar fashion. Buying organic does not guarantee animal welfare.Bottom Line: There doesn’t seem to be much difference, health-wise, between organic or conventional meats. Grass-fed beef has a slight edge over grain-fed because of higher omega-3 levels, but the amounts are too small to affect human health.
- Eggs: As with milk and meat, the omega-3 levels of eggs are affected by the hens’ diet and can be increased by pasturing or dietary supplementation for either organic or conventional hens. Eggs high in omega-3s are generally labeled.There’s very little research on contaminants in eggs. The USDA’s 2015 National Residue Program tested 497 egg samples and found no residues of pesticides, contaminants or veterinary drugs, including antibiotics. This isn’t surprising because, according to Pat Curtis, a poultry scientist at Auburn University, laying hens aren’t routinely given antibiotics, and there is a mandated withdrawal period after they do get the drugs (to treat illness) before their eggs can be sold.Bottom Line: There are no significant differences affecting health between organic and conventional eggs.
- Fish: The USDA has not issued any organic standards for farmed fish, seafood or shellfish.Bottom Line: When it comes to fish and ocean life, there are no federal regulations that make something “sustainable” or “organic.” So if you see seafood marked as such, be wary: It’s not required on a state or federal basis to meet any specific standards, it hasn’t been tested for toxicity, and it’s probably more expensive.
In Conclusion: No matter what kind of food you consume, there are inherent risks with crops, dairy and meat from both organic and conventional systems. In the end, it comes down to a personal choice that’s right for you and your family. Hopefully, after reading this, you’ve learned a little something about Organic Food that you didn’t know before… And as they say, “An informed consumer is a smart consumer.”
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