06/20/2014 01:04 EDT | Updated 08/20/2014 05:59 EDT

How Safe Is Organic Food Really?

Fresh Juice Smoothie Made with Organic Greens, Spirulina, Protein Powders

Germany 2011, a mysterious illness swept the country. More than 3,000 people fell ill and 31 died. The source of the infection was unknown. Imported Spanish cucumbers were suspected but it was later discovered that the source was much closer to home -- bean sprouts grown at a small organic farm in northern Germany.

While catastrophic food-borne outbreaks have also occurred with conventional products over the years, this case raises the question: Is organic food safe?

Contamination in organic foods is a concern since organic practices revolve around cycling nutrients. Crops deplete the nutrients in the soil which then must be replenished for new crops to thrive. Organic farmers use manure or compost for this purpose while conventional farmers use synthetic fertilizers. Unfortunately, despite the fact that plants love it, the use of manure can lead to E. coli contamination. Salmonella contamination is also a concern since it can survive in the soil for almost a year.

Many organic cleaning products are less effective than synthetic compounds, increasing the likelihood of bacteria surviving on products. Case in point -- so far this month, Salmonella in organic chia powder has sickened 21 in the U.S. and Canada.

Viruses and parasites can affect organic crops. Last year an organic frozen berry mix led to an outbreak of hepatitis A with 161 people falling ill. Pomegranate seeds were the cause of a similar outbreak in B.C. and organic bagged salads caused an outbreak of cyclospora parasite -- infecting 631 people.

Although not necessarily a health problem, worm and insect infestations are more common in organic products since multiple synthetic pesticides cannot be used to control these organisms. The chances of eating worm or insect parts in jams or jellies is greater.

Many people believe organic foods are chemical free but this is not the case. Toxic chemicals occur naturally in the environment. Arsenic, cyanide, and formaldehyde all occur naturally in soil and water and can be found in organic foods.

Earlier this year, CBC News Manitoba reported that: nearly half of the organic fresh fruits and vegetables tested across Canada in the past two years contained pesticide residue. While organic farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides, they are allowed to use 'natural' pesticides such as rotenone, pyrethrum/pyrethrins, and neme. Although, natural pesticides are generally less toxic, they are still harmful. The range of possible contaminants is wider for non-organics but concentrations must fall below thresholds considered safe for human consumption in both organic and non-organic products.

There's controversy about the use of Genetically Modified (GMO) crops such as corn and soy by some organic producers. Kashi was boycotted for a while because it was discovered that most of its soy came from GMO crops. The company worked to rectify this issue by joining the Non-GMO Project which verifies that the crops and other raw ingredients used for their products are GMO-free. But according to Kashi's website, not all of their products are GMO-free yet. The Kashi case illustrates that some organic growers may not be excluding GMO crops, even the larger ones. While there is no actual science to back up the idea that GMO foods are dangerous; if you think you are buying natural food by buying organic, this may not be the case.

Bottom line -- both organic and non-organic products may contain harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, insects, chemicals, pesticide residue, and may include GMO. The most serious issue is that the risk of biological contamination is higher in organic foods due to the use of manure and weaker cleaning agents. If you decide to purchase organic products make sure to choose your suppliers carefully, selecting only those that follow comprehensive food safety programs that ensure their products are safe.


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