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Organic Food: Can We Trust It? Can We Afford It?

Touting health and environmental benefit, the organic food industry literally exploded in this millennium and sales more than doubled from 2002 to 2006. Consumers sought organic alternatives because they preferred fewer chemicals in food, because it was better for them, their family, and the environment, and because they preferred the taste.1

Products that are relatively free from unwanted chemicals reduce intake of toxins that can cause short and long term health problems. Children are more vulnerable to these chemicals than adults.


But new research shows consumers’ appetite for green products including organic foods has curbed lately – December 2007 US sales were up only 5.6% over the year prior, compared with 25.6% growth the previous year.2 What has caused this decline in the growth rate, and is it representative of an episodic or a more long-term behavioral trend?

 

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A broad body of research validates that the price premium for organics is an obstacle to mainstream acceptance. Price doesn’t seem to be the only obstacle. Lack of consumer awareness, confusion over labeling, benefit expectations in conflict with regulated definitions, and skepticism about government standards as adequate consumer protection, are all driving forces.  

Consumers who do purchase organic products value them mainly for their relative health and environmental safety.3 Consumers Union published a 1999 study confirming that organic produce bears fewer residues than conventional produce,4 validating consumer perception. Also, studies show organic foods create an immediate reduction in presence of pesticides in urine analysis.5 

Essentially, there is no question organic foods are preferable, but is this enough to trust them for our safety? Is it enough to pay a premium?

Healthy Living Fuels Appetite for Organics

Products that are relatively free from unwanted chemicals reduce our intake of toxins that can cause short and long term health problems. This is important in light of the growing number of diagnoses of various diseases and problems including asthma, allergies, developmental and behavioral disorders, fertility and reproductive problems, hormone and thyroid complications, blood disease, liver and kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer. “There is a correlation between the two factors,” says Annie Bond, author and nationally-recognized green living expert. “The science connecting many synthetic chemicals to impaired health is complex but irrefutable. While the details are being resolved, living according to The Precautionary Principle is the way of common sense in our time. It basically means you choose products that will cause the least amount of potential harm.”

Children are more vulnerable to these chemicals than adults. Babies eat more fruits and vegetables, pound for pound, than adults. Babies have a more narrow food palette and thus can amass concentrations of certain chemicals. Babies have more delicate gastrointestinal systems which may not process and purge these synthetics as well as adults. It is important to stress that toxins can be passed from mother to fetus during gestation, and, after birth, during lactation through breast milk, as well as on a baby spoon.

Consumers are gradually becoming aware of the health benefits of green living but more education is necessary so they can make informed decisions about pest management, lawn care, house cleaning and grocery lists. If more people understood the true penetration factor for chemicals into our lives – and through the most unsuspecting of sources, things that are supposed to be good for us! – and the effects these chemicals have on us and through us we would see a much higher incidence of certain behaviors, such as eating organic foods or using more benign cleaning products. “More education” was cited as the number two reason respondents would purchase organic items more, behind “competitive pricing with synthetics”.6 

 

If more people understood the true penetration factor for chemicals into our lives and the effects these chemicals have on us and through us we would see a much higher incidence of certain behaviors, such as eating organic foods or using more benign cleaning products.

 

Making Sense of Labels

This research suggests consumer confusion over labeling definitions hinders purchase. “Organic”, “natural” and “naturally raised” mean different things and even with all these designations, products meeting these standards can still introduce synthetic chemicals in the diet. The designations are defined as follows.

Organic refers to the way meat, vegetables and fruits are produced and handled; the raising of the cow, the growing of the crop. Organic means no synthetic chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, sewage sludge, most synthetic pesticides, bioengineered seed or plant, or ionizing radiation7 are used in the food’s production. Organic certification is regulated and administered by the USDA. There is no USDA organic standard for seafood.

With respect to labeling, the organic designation is reserved for products with a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. Organic is not a content claim per se or a statement that a food is free of something, and it does not mean a product is superior, safer or more nutritious than conventional options. Organic certification does not mean the food is totally free of synthetic substances, but synthetics are to be from an approved list. The organic designation does not address food processing considerations, such as additives or preservatives.

“Made with organic ingredients” can be stated if a minimum of 70% of ingredients are organic. Labels may indicate organic ingredients specifically on the label if less than 70% of ingredients are organic but a generalized organic statement on the label is prohibited.

Free Range is a term regulated by the USDA for poultry, but chicken eggs and beef are not regulated. The USDA only requires the animals have the option to go outdoors and so five minutes of open air access each day is enough for poultry to legally bear the free range claim.8

Natural means the cut of meat has been processed without artificial additives and preservatives. Natural does not address an animal’s diet or genetic engineering, physical alterations, application of pesticides or fertilizers, or living conditions. The meat can also be pumped up with salt water. Natural meat is also regulated by the USDA.9

Naturally raised refers to livestock used for the production of meat and meat products. Naturally raised foods are free from growth promotants, such as hormones, and antibiotics. No animal byproducts are in the feed – animal byproducts are implicated in mad cow disease. Naturally raised does not address genetic engineering, physical alterations, application of pesticides or living conditions.

The Department of Agriculture released this new voluntary standard for the claim ‘naturally raised’ in January 2009 but the standard has not been fully implemented. This standard conflicts materially with consumer perceptions of the term’s meaning. According to a Consumer Reports study released in November 2008 consumers define naturally raised animal products as those that are:

  • Raised on a diet free from chemicals drugs and animal byproducts (86%)
  • Raised in a natural environment (85%)
  • Raised on a natural diet (85%)
  • Not cloned or genetically engineered (78%)
  • Had access to the outdoors (77%)
  • Was treated humanely (76%)
  • Was not confined (68%)10

That the public doesn’t necessarily agree with the USDA standards may be indicated by the 36,000 signatures on a Consumers Union petition stating the USDA standards are flawed and misleading.11

Confusion and conflicting expectation are compounded by mislabeling on the manufacturer’s or purveyor’s part. It is common to see erroneous claims on package labels, whether unintentional or not. According to recent research from Green Seal and EnviroMedia, approximately one third of consumers don’t know how to tell if a green product’s claims are true or not.12

Consumers Union has developed an online tool to help consumers evaluate product labels for over 150 products including food. The eco-labels tool can be found at their free public service site, greenerchoices.org. Consumers Union senior scientist and policy analyst Urvashi Rangan says, "It's impossible for a consumer to tell what a label means from looking at a claim or logo on a product. We set up this important rating and information service to help consumers learn which labels are truly meaningful and which ones aren't worth a premium.”13

Are Standards Effective?

Recent salmonella outbreaks from King Nut peanut butter occurred in spite of the Blakely, Georgia peanut plant’s organic certifications, which do not address the processing phase of food production. As of January 28, 2009 the CDC recorded 529 people from 43 states and one from Canada were infected with the outbreak strain.14 This particular strain, Salmonella serotype Typhimurium, bears some resemblance to the strain (S. Tennessee) in the 2006 – 2007 outbreak. The S. Tennessee strain came from a plant 70 miles from the Blakely plant. 

If organic certifications can’t prevent foodborne illness it may cause consumers to question the merit of the USDA designation. While the organic food market's growth slowed dramatically in 2007, the timing in relation to the first peanut salmonella outbreak was probably coincidental. If future outbreaks occur, consumers may conclude that the organic standards aren’t effective at protecting the public and devalue organics and similar designations.

Supply Dwindling

In spite of increasing demand for organic foods, supply chains are not keeping pace. The Department of Agriculture estimates that .5% of all cropland and .5% of all pastureland in 2005 was devoted to organic food production. One of the hindrances is that organic farms must meet the USDA standards for three years before food produced there can be sold as organic. Among the available acreage for organics, production must feed two groups, consumers and organic livestock, which inhibits organic produce supply such as vegetables and fruits. Lately some farmlands have been converted to biofuel production while others have been converted to conventional farming because the margins are more attractive, further squeezing supply channels. 

Price Premiums

It’s not just perception, organic food costs more. The Department of Agriculture records an average monthly price for organic eggs (dollars per dozen per carton, first receiver) in 2007 at $2.37, 126% higher than $1.05 for conventional eggs. Based on the Boston wholesale market price organic versus conventional broccoli was 129% higher in 2007.15 Milk in 2004 was 98% higher.16 Gerber estimates the company’s organic baby food costs 30% more than its traditional product lines.17

Recent increases due to rising fuel costs and other influencers may have pushed organic foods beyond the means of many of its core customers, who today may be less affluent than seven or eight years ago. A USDA report cited several 2004 – 2006 independent research studies that describe the core prospective organic milk customer as most likely to be Asian, Hispanic and Black. Also, half of those who frequently buy organic food have annual incomes below $50,000. Also consider that conventional grocery stores sell the largest share of organic milk today, whereas 20 years ago it was the independent natural foods store. A common element among most studies is that parents of young children are more likely than non-parents to purchase organic food.18  

Pressure from economic drivers during the nation’s financial crisis may impact organic food sales over the next several years. Research from Mintel in 2008 finds 78% of those surveyed would buy more organic food if the products were cheaper.19 Price may not be the only factor, but price pressures force value questions. Only 27% of consumers thought organics were “worth the money” in a 2008 survey by WSL Strategic Retail. 20

Health Risks of Conventional Food Production Methods
Pesticides (herbicides and insecticides), antibiotics, growth hormones and other synthetic realities in conventional produce and animal farming practices inevitably show up in our bodies when we ingest food from such sources. “Contamination is widespread, with 89 of 116 chemicals detected in Americans’ blood and urine,” remarks Laurine Brown, PhD, MPH about a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in 2003. “And subsets of Americans experience greater body burdens, for example children had twice the levels of pesticides and cotinine (from second hand smoke) as adults,” adds Brown.21 These toxins can be harmful to our health – if perhaps not in single doses, more likely in the presence of small but cumulative exposures. We often think of “non-toxic” products as safe but toxic means acutely harmful or fatal, and just because a chemical won’t kill us we are not immune to other, chronic damage from it.  

Specifically, these chemicals are often endocrine disruptors, reproductive toxins, neurotoxins and carcinogens. Endocrine disruptors are synthetic chemicals that mimic human hormones, confusing our bodies and stimulating abnormal hormonal responses. Endocrine disruptors persist in body fat and mobilize during ovulation, pregnancy and lactation. Pregnant women, their fetuses and neonatal infants are at risk for any exposure the mother has had prior to lactation, including before conception. Endocrine disruptors cause hormonal imbalance, premature puberty, low sperm count, non-viable pregnancy, and reproductive abnormalities. Reproductive toxins impair normal reproductive activity. Neurotoxins harm our central nervous system and carcinogens cause cancer. 

Herbicides of concern include 2,4-D, Mecoprop (MCPP), MCPA, and Dicamba – all possible or probable carcinogens, and/or endocrine disruptors. Many are linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 2,4-D is found to cause reduced sperm count or increased abnormalities in sperm, Dicamba is a developmental toxin, and MCPA is linked to reproductive problems and mutagenicity. These are the same herbicides commonly used to create lush, weed-free lawns. A visible sign is placed in the yard when a lawn service applies these toxins to caution us to stay away. But there is no visible sign in the crop field or the fruit orchard; there is no sign to caution us away from the conventional produce section.

Insecticides such as organophosphates (OPs) include neurotoxins (how they kill insects) or nerve gases. They include chlorpyrifos, malathion, and parathion. Organophosphates have chronic effects also. Some groups, especially young children, have levels above those deemed “acceptable” by EPA. Because OPs generally do not persist in the environment for long periods of time and do not build up in the body fat of humans, the fact that these pesticides were found in such a high percentage of test subjects indicates that most people are routinely exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis.22 Peaches, apples, grapes, green beans, and pears are some of the fruits and vegetables children most commonly consume that are conventionally grown with OP insecticides.23 

Organic foods including baby foods are worth the investment, ConsumerReports.org advises. “A lot of these pesticides are toxic to the brain,” says Philip Landrigan, a professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “We have very good evidence that exposure of the fetus to organophosphorus pesticides produced babies with small head circumference, which is a risk factor for reduced intelligence and behavior disturbances.”24

Prioritizing Food Purchases for Health

If the price premiums for organic foods are a problem, prioritize by the type of foods purchased. Baby food should be at the top of the list. Baby food is almost always fruits and vegetables that, pound for pound, deliver a higher exposure per serving than adult portions. Babies are more vulnerable too, physiologically speaking. 

The second tier is organic animal products – milk, butter, eggs, poultry and meat (not necessarily naturally raised). Reducing consumption of conventionally farmed animal products limits the ingestion of antibiotics, growth hormones and pesticides. Organic milk will probably have the greatest impact of all organic animal products where children are concerned because it is what they consume in highest volume.

Also on the second tier are those vegetables and fruits that generally require more pesticides than others in agricultural production: apples, pears, grapes, bell peppers, celery, cherries, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries. If you enjoy these foods purchase organic varieties when possible.

Third tier produce includes those fruits and vegetables that require minimal synthetic intervention to thrive and include asparagus, avocados, bananas, corn, kiwi, onions, pineapples and sweet peas. Because fewer chemicals are necessary in their production in general, the “traditional” versions probably bear minimal risk. 

If organic produce is not available or you do not wish to pay a premium, remove skin from fruits, shell peas, and remove all outer leaves from vegetables grown conventionally. This is where much of the chemical residue will be concentrated. For produce that can’t be peeled, don’t bother with vegetable washes, which are comprised of detergents and themselves include potentially harmful ingredients. Soak broccoli, cauliflower, peppers and leafy greens in plain cold water, then rinse to remove residues. 

Weeding Out Confusion Is Key to Consumer Trust

Non-profit groups like Consumers Union are making progress with the USDA on revising labeling protocols and terminology to clear up confusion about organic foods, but more is necessary. In February 2009 the consumer advocacy group’s senior scientist and policy analyst, Urvashi Rangan, wrote the USDA with several suggestions for food labels to create more transparency and help consumers better understand the various organic and related designations. "The USDA has an important role to play in clearing up marketplace confusion around meat labeling, not in adding to it, as the case is currently," says Consumers Union’s Rangan.

If consumers had a clearer understanding of what the “healthier” distinctions meant they might make more confident choices in the grocery aisles. It is unclear whether the organic food industry will suffer significantly from the present economy’s impact. However it seems apparent that more consumers would opt for organic food choices to avoid exposure to toxins if the designations were more meaningful, the distinctions clearer, and term usage more consistent across food types.

 

(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)

 

References

 

1. Robinson, Barbara, Value through Verification: USDA National Organic Program. 11 Jul. 2006. United States Department of Agriculture. 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3049688&acct=noppub>

 

2. Nield, Jeff, Organic Food Sales Still Growing Despite Economic Woes. 1 Feb. 2009. Treehugger.com. 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/02/organic-food-sales-still-growing.php>

 

3. Robinson, Barbara, Value through Verification: USDA National Organic Program. 31 Mar. 2009. United States Department of Agriculture. 1 Apr. 2009 <http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3049688>

 

4. Label Dancing: Eco-label watchdog Urvashi Rangan answers Grist’s Questions. March 21, 2005 Grist.Org. 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.grist.org/comments/interactivist/2005/03/21/rangan/index.html>
 

5. Schneider, Andrew, Harmful pesticides found in everyday food products. 30 Jan. 2008. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.seattlepi.com/local/349263_pesticide30.html>
  

6. Consumer Attitudes on Organic: 2008 Winter Survey, Garden Writers Association Foundation, 5 Jan. 2009.
 

7. Organic Labels Come in Different Shapes and Sizes, 1 Apr. 2009. The Daily Green. 1 Apr 2009. <http://www.thedailygreen.com/going-green/latest/3979>
 

8. Rangan, Urvashi. “Evaluating product labels.” E-mail to Cloud Conrad, 31 Mar. 2009.
 

9. Rangan, Urvashi. E-mail 31 Mar. 2009.
 

10. “Naturally raised” standard allows unnatural practices. 19 Feb. 2009. Consumers Union. 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.greenerchoices.org/products.cfm?product=naturallyraisedstandard&pcat=food>
 

11. Consumers Union and Food & Water Watch say new USDA standard for so-called naturally raised meat sanctions unnatural practices. 19 Feb. 2009. Consumers Union. 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core_food_safety/006534.html>
 

12. 82 Percent of Consumers Buying Green Despite Battered Economy. 9 Feb. 2009. Green Seal. 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.greenseal.org/resources/green_buying_research.cfm>
 

13. Rangan, Urvashi. E-mail. 31 Mar. 2009.
 

14. Multistate Outbreak of Salmonella Infections Associated with Peanut Butter and Peanut Butter-Containing Products. 18 Mar 2009. Centers for Disease Control. 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.CDC.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5804a4.htm>
 

15. All Wholesale Farmgate Prices 2007, 14 Mar. 2009. Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agricultural. 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/OrganicPrices>

 

16. Dimitri, Carolyn and Kathryn M. Venezia, Retail and Consumer Aspects of the organic Milk Market. May 2007, Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture. 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/LDP/2007/05May/LDPM15501/ldpm15501.pdf>
 

17. As parents eye environment worries, sales of organic baby food jump. 1 May 2007. The Eagle-Tribune. 31 Mar. 2009 <http://www.eagletribune.com/pubiz/local_story_121093849>
 

18. Dimitri, Carolyn and Kathryn M. Venezia, Retail and Consumer Aspects of the organic Milk Market. 
 

19. Stoltz, Jeremy, Green push stalled by weakened economy. 11 Mar. 2009. The Business Ledger. 31 Mar. 2009. <http://thebusinessledger.com/Home/Archives/CommentaryViewpoints/tabid/86/newsid415/625/Default.aspx>
 

20. Naughton, Keith, Natural Response. 12 May 2008. Newsweek. 31-Mar. 2009. <http://www.newsweek.com/id/135377>
 

21. Brown, Laurine, PhD, MPH, What’s Your Chemical Burden? 31 Mar. 2009. Illinois Wesleyan University Wellness Center. 31 Mar. 2009 <http://www.iwu.edu/~wellness/environment_folder/body_burden.htm>

 

22. How could I get sick, poisoned or exposed? 31 Mar. 2009. Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.panna.org/ops/exposure>

 

23. Organophosphate Insecticides in Children’s Food. Jan. 2008. Environmental Working Group. 31. Mar. 2009. <http://www.ewg.org/reports/ops>

 

24. Better for Baby? Jan. 2006. ConsumerReports.org, 31 Mar. 2009. <http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/health-fitness/exercise-wellness/consumer-reports-why-organic-baby-food-is-safer-106/overview/index.htm?resultPageIndex=1&resultIndex=6 searchTerm=better%20for%20baby>

 

 

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Organic Food: Can We Trust It? Can We Afford It?:  Created on April 2nd, 2009.  Last Modified on January 17th, 2010

 

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About Cloud Q. Conrad

Cloud Q. Conrad is the principal of Atlanta-based Garden the Planet, a residential landscape design and consulting firm, emphasizing responsible horticultural practices that respect and protect the environment, while maintaining high aesthetic appeal and functionality.


 

 

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