When it comes to food safety there is a disconnect between what the medical community and scientists see as risk and what the general public regards as a risk. If one listened solely to the public, it would seem that GMO foods and synthetic pesticides posed more of a danger to food safety and general health than pathogens despite the fact that as of 2011 the CDC estimated 48 million people become ill, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from food borne pathogens.1 Marion Nestle, a prominent academic who studies nutrition and food policies, calls this disconnection between approaches to food safety as “science based” versus “value based.”2(17) Much of the general public take a value based approach that balances risk against outrage and dread.2(17) In social psychology this idea is called the moral judgment of disgust, but it is the same principle.3 In general people make a moral or value based judgment when it comes to food based on emotions more than science or logic. GMOs and pesticides inspire dread, outrage, disgust, and distrust despite the lack of sound science showing major harms to consumer health.
I don’t specifically recommend organic produce or products because, from a scientific point of view, they’re not significantly nutritionally better than conventionally grown nor are they necessarily safer.4 There are legitimate concerns about the damage pesticides do to the environment, but those concerns apply equally to conventional and organic pesticides. Organic pesticides can be just as toxic to the environment as conventional synthetic pesticides.5,6
Pesticide residues in conventional produce is one of the subjects that most concerns consumers of organic products and a variety of organizations and food industry interests prey upon those fears, yet the EPA only tests for residues of 200 conventional agricultural chemicals; the most commonly used organic pesticides (sulfur, petroleum derived oils, copper compounds, Bt products) aren’t tested due to additional assay costs.7 Research from other countries shows that organic pesticide residues are measurable in food crops and they sometimes exceed set limits.8
The majority of pesticides found in the American diet, however, aren’t from residues of agricultural products, synthetic or organic, but chemicals produced by plants themselves.9 An estimated 99.9% of pesticides consumed by humans are naturally occurring toxins that plants use to protect themselves from fungal infections and consumption by animals and insects, including humans.9 It’s estimated that the average human ingests somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 different naturally occurring pesticides from edible plants.9 The average ingestion of naturally occurring pesticides per person in the US is 1.5 grams (1500mg) per day; the amount is higher in those who eat plant based diets (vegetarian, vegan, etc.) and those who eat whole grains instead of refined grains.9 In contrast, the FDA evaluates 200 agricultural chemicals and found residues of 105 of them in food; the average total intake of these chemical residues per person per day is approximately 0.09mg.9 This means that natural pesticide consumption is 15,000 times greater than synthetic pesticide consumption. When looked at from this perspective, eating conventionally grown produce rather than organically grown produce is not going to increase pesticide or chemical load within the human body in any significant way.
Organic produce also isn’t necessarily safer than conventionally grown in other ways; pathogens can exist anywhere as the recall of Odwalla unpasteurized apple juice showed.2(97),10 Manures from ruminate animals used on organic farms that have been improperly aged before application can be contaminated with pathogens as can irrigation water just as easily as fertilizers and water used by conventionally grown produce, sometimes more easily as in the case with manure.2(42),10 In my opinion, paying the extra money for organic produce is only worth it if you have a personal relationship with the grower and know their growing process from the soil up. Organic does not necessarily equal better, for human health or the environment; agricultural practices are what matter most.
While the consumer can’t control microbial contamination in a product before they purchase it, there are steps they can take to reduce infection at home.
- Buy intact meats like steaks and roasts more often than ground meats.
- Purchase ground meat from local grass fed or pasture raised animals, if is available and affordable, or grind your own.
- If using conventional ground meat then make sure it’s cooked all the way through to 160°F.2(42)
- Wash all fruits and vegetables with cool, drinkable water.
- Scrub firm skinned fruits and vegetables with a dedicated vegetable brush that is sanitized often.
- Separate and soak leafy greens in a bath of cold water for several minutes before draining, rinsing with clean water, and repeating the process.
- Vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli should be soaked in a bowl of cold water for several minutes.
- To wash berries and other delicate produce, place in a colander and spray with clean water.
A ½ cup of white vinegar can be added to 2 cups water to reduce more microbes.11 Dry produce with a clean paper towel after washing to remove more bacteria. Leafy greens can be dried in a clean salad spinner.11 Proper hand washing, kitchen sanitation, avoiding cross contamination between uncooked meats and other foods, and storing foods promptly in the refrigerator are also important things to consider in order to reduce illnesses from pathogens.11
1. Burden of Foodborne Illness: Overview. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/estimates-overview.html Updated July 15, 2016.
2. Nestle, M. Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety. Second Edition. Kindle Edition. Berkley, CA: University of California Press; 2010.
3. Schnall S, Haidt J, Clore GL, Jordan AH. Disgust as Embodied Moral Judgment. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2008; 34: 1096-1109.doi: 10.1177/0146167208317771
4. Magkos F, Arvaniti F, Zampelas A. Organic food: nutritious food or food for thought? A review of the evidence. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2003; 54(5): 357-371. doi: 10.1080/09637480120092071
5. Biondi A, Desneux N, Siscaro G, Zappala L. Using organic-certified rather than synthetic pesticides may not be safer for biological control agents: Selectivity and side effects of 14 pesticides on the predator. Orius laevigatus.Chemosphere. 2012; 87(7): 803–812. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2011.12.082
6. Bahlai CA, Xue Y, McCreary CM McCreary, AW Schaafsma, RH Hallett. Choosing Organic Pesticides over Synthetic Pesticides May Not Effectively Mitigate Environmental Risk in Soybeans. PLOS One. 2010. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0011250
7. United States Department of Agriculture. USDA Science and Technology Programs. 2010 – 2011 Pilot Study; Pesticide Residue Testing of Organic Produce. USDA National Organic Program. Published November 2012.
8. Simeone V, Baser N, Perrelli D, Cesari G, El Bilali H, Natale P. Residues of rotenone, azadirachtin, pyrethrins and copper used to control Bactrocera oleae (Gmel.) in organic olives and oil. Food Addit Contam Part A. 2009; 26(4): 475-481. doi: 0.1080/02652030802562938
9. Ames BN, Profet M, Gold LS. Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural). Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1990; 87(19): 7777–7781
10. Magkos, F., Arvaniti, F., & Zampelas, A. Putting the safety of organic food into perspective. Nutrition Research Reviews. 2007; 16(2): 211-222. doi:10.1079/NRR200361
11. Bolton J, Bushway A, Crowe K, El-Begearmi M. Best Ways to Wash Fruits and Vegetables. University of Maine Cooperative Extension Publications. https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/4336e/ Published 2003. Updated 2013.