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Good Eats: Fuel for Better Living

Organic Panic

By Todd Feist

"Just because something is labeled as organic does not mean it is superior, safer or more healthy than conventional food."

The choice to go organic just got complicated.

In the past, producers and consumers fell into a certain eco-friendly and health conscious demographic. But what started as a fringe movement has gone mainstream, and the organic market has exploded from a multi-million dollar anomaly to a multi-billion dollar boom.

As more and more choose to go organic, consumers are faced with the question: Without guarantees for product safety, what exactly does 'organic' mean?

Since the late 1980's, the USDA has been working towards establishing guidelines to regulate organic foods. In March 2000, after approximately ten years of work and the involvement of several government agencies, the USDA published the revised Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA).

The USDA's revised OFPA sets policies for growing and outlines certification requirements for produce labelled organic. Yet, it shies away from any claims that the guidelines ensure safe and healthy foods. In fact, according to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, even with the revised OFPA, the label 'organic' offers no guarantees.

"Organic," Glickman explains, "is about how it is produced. Just because something is labeled as organic does not mean it is superior, safer or more healthy than conventional food." If, as Glickman says, "the organic classification is not a judgment about the quality or safety of any product," just what does the classification tell you?

"Organic is merely a philosophical choice," explains Dr. Rhona Applebaum, Chief Scientist of the National Food Processors Association (NFPA). Philosophy from a scientist, a scientist charged with ensuring food safety?

For many Americans, health is the primary reason for eating organic foods. When the USDA — the department charged with "ensuring a safe, affordable, nutritious, and accessible food supply"— is ambivalent on the health impacts of its own guidelines, responsibility for safety goes local.

A Waning Community

At its roots, the organic community is a group of a health-conscious, environmentalist growers, vendors and consumers. But now all that sets the organic community apart is control over the product — control which they will lose once the revised OFPA is implemented this fall.

Originally, it was people from the organic community that asked Congress to pass regulations in order to provide national standards for organic production and labeling. Since then, however, many have become wary of the bureaucratic offspring of their efforts.

For organic growers, vendors and consumers, the biggest concern is not only that the federal regulations will decrease the quality of organic products, but that this decline could pose health risks. Without proper care, the very fruits and vegetables consumers seek out for health reasons could harbor dangerous bacteria that can cause illness and even death.

The Risk

One danger of declining quality in organic produce is food borne illness such as E coli infection. A bacteria commonly found in cow manure , E. Coli is known to cause bloody diarrhea and occasional kidney failure. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), an estimated 61 people in the United States die from E. Coli infection each year and it is particularly dangerous for the elderly and children under five years of age.

While most cases of E. Coli infection have been associated with eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef, bad composting and lax composting regulations may become more and more of a threat.

When it is treated properly, cow manureis is a safe and effective fertilizer commonly used to grow organic foods. But without careful handling, bacteria from infected manure can end up in the fruits and vegetables that land on the dinner table.

The key to eliminating risk of infection, according to Dr. Applebaum, is heat. When "the compost is not treated in such a way that will ensure that critical control point is reached — which is essentially heat — pathogens, if present, are not killed. Safety is not a guarantee."

All the experts seem to agree that foods grown in manure require special care. So who is charged with protecting consumers from the risk of infection? Both the CDC and Dr. Applebaum cite the importance of responsibility on a local level.

While Ronnie Cummins, national Director of the Organic Consumers Association, agrees that improperly composted manure is dangerous, he stresses that everyone in the organic growing community works together to minimize risk.

"If the grower does not follow composting regulations," explains Cummins, "the entire farm is at risk." The grower, stripped of certification, loses a livelihood. This is a strong motivation to take precautions, according to Cummins. In addition to personal accountability , Cummins suggests that neighboring farmers would blow the whistle on a fellow grower who might be breaking the rules.

The Health of One

When it comes to preventing food borne illness, the safety of organic foods relies more and more on the waning strength of a tight-knit community.

The manure piles are out there, and with a full ninety days needed at specific heat to eliminate bacteria, cutting corners becomes a health risk. Should the organic community get tangled in a web of bureaucracy, where will the prevention come from? There is no easy answer.

But, continued research on the federal level may offer solutions. Facets of the revised OFPA allow for more research about the health benefits of eating organic foods, and the CDC chugs forward with its own efforts to identify the many sources of food borne illness. Armed with more information, the government may be in a position to take a stronger stand to ensure illness prevention.

On the other hand, the answer could be found in the organic communities themselves. "If the government screws this up over time, we will be forced to denounce these standards, label them as Grade B organic and come out with our own Grade A organic," says Cummins.

In the meantime, the choice, your health, and the health of your family are in your hands.

After attending a state school in the Midwest, Todd has written fiction and nonfiction across the nation, covering a broad range of topics. If you have questions or comments, he can be reached at: toddfeist@hotmail.com

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