Trashing organic foods

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Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute is the source of a claim that organic food is more dangerous to eat than food produced using chemical pesticides.

"According to recent data compiled by the U.S Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who eat organic and 'natural' foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (0157:H7)," Avery wrote in the Fall 1998 issue of American Outlook, a Hudson Institute publication. This happens, he said, because organic food is grown in animal manure, a known carrier of this nasty microbe. He said his data came from Dr. Paul Mead, an epidemiologist at the CDC.

Avery delivered this message with op-eds that bore titles such as "The Silent Killer in Organic Foods" that were disseminated by Bridge News to between 300 and 400 newspapers throughout the country and approximately 500,000 other subscribers including government departments, central banks and businesses. This claim seems to have taken on a life of its own. On August 25, 1999, for example, the USDA's National Food Safety Database carried a story titled "Organic Food Creates Higher Risk for Food Poisoning." The story originated with US Newswire, a service that electronically disseminates news releases. It quoted Dr. Robert Tauxe, chief of the CDC's Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases Branch, saying, "Organic food means a food was grown in animal manure."

Tauxe denies ever making that statement and says he believes the rumor originated with Dennis Avery. After fielding numerous media queries on the subject, CDC took the unusual step on January 14, 1999 of issuing a press release stating, "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not conducted any study that compares or quantitates the specific risk for infection with E. coli 0157:H7 and eating either conventionally grown or organic/natural foods." In addition, Tauxe says he called Avery to tell him to stop claiming that the CDC was the source of this allegation. Avery responded by telling Tauxe, "That's your interpretation, and I have mine."

Avery claims his information came from Dr. Paul Mead, an epidemiologist who works in Tauxe's division. Absolute bunk, says Mead. "What happened is that he called me up and announced that eight percent of the outbreaks of foodborne illness were from organic food. I took some exception to that and said I didn't know him and what his purpose was, but our data don't support that." Mead was chagrined to hear that a year after this conversation took place, Avery is still sourcing this phantom data back to him.

Contrary to Avery's claim, E. coli 0157:H7 contamination from manure is less likely to occur on organic farms than in the intensive farming system that Avery supports. Fred Kirschenmann is an organic farmer and board chairman of the private organic certification company Farm Verified Organic. He points out that a single cow produces approximately 10 times as much fecal matter as a human being. This means that a feedlot of 5,000 head of cattle would produce the same amount of manure as 50,000 people. Yet modern conventional agriculture does not regulate the use of raw manure in food crops, Kirschenmann says, and farmers are spreading increasing amounts of it on their fields because it is too expensive to truck away and they don't have anywhere else to put it.

Kirschenmann serves on the National Organic Standards Board which was charged by Congress to advise the USDA in formulating its legal standards defining organic food. "In organic systems, most animals have to have access to pasture, so they can't be concentrated in huge feedlots," he says, adding that Avery's charge that organic food is grown in manure is misleading, at best. "Organic farmers use manure, but virtually every certification organization I know of doesn't allow raw manure. Raw manure must either be composted or applied long enough in advance that the bacteria is no longer active," he said, adding that this requirement is being written into USDA's proposed rules.

Dr. Robert Elder, a research microbiologist at the USDA's Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, specializes in measuring E. coli 0157:H7 in cattle. He says this deadly bacteria could be prevented from contaminating meat carcasses before they are ground into hamburger. "If you took meticulous time with every single carcass to vigorously clean it, scrub it, and wash it down, you could probably eliminate it," he said. But, Elder added, considering that the bigger plants are processing 3,000 to 4,000 animals a day--about 300 an hour--adequate cleaning is impossible. And that is a huge problem for the public. Elder's soon-to-be published research shows that in the summertime, when E. coli 0157:H7 levels peak, 80 to 100 percent of the feedlot cattle he tested carried the deadly 0157:H7 strain.

Despite a public debunking of Avery's statements in the New York Times in February 1999, his bogus claims continue to spread and appear to be gaining momentum. U.S. newspapers like the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Investor's Business Daily, and the Journal of Commerce have run stories about killer organic food. The story has also made its way to Canada and Europe, under headlines such as, "Organic just means it's dirtier, more expensive," "Organic food--'It's eight times more likely to kill you'" and "Organic food link to E. coli deaths."

Recently "Senate and House Republicans on the Agriculture appropriations subcommittee inserted a last-minute provision into the department's fiscal 2006 budget specifying that certain artificial ingredients could be used in organic food" [1].

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