10 Surprising Facts About Organic Food Safety

If you practice organic living, you might think that organic food safety is something you don’t have to worry about. After all, you’re buying the healthiest, most natural food every week. You do it because you want to live a sustainable lifestyle and to help save the environment of course, but a meal without all of those chemicals should also be healthier for you and your family, right? Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, the reality of organic food safety is a little more complicated than we might assume, and that little green stamp on your all-natural energy bar might not stand for exactly what you think it does.

10 Things You Don’t Know About Organic Food Safety

When you buy organic, you’re taking an important step toward living a more sustainable lifestyle, and that’s great – keep doing it! But the word “organic” can also serve as a kind of shortcut when it comes to evaluating food for health and safety, and therein lies the problem. For most of us, the word “organic” is an emotional trigger, a magical adjective that gives moral weight to any noun it touches. This word – which can connote ideas like cleanliness, safety and health all at the same time – has a lot of power, and if we’re not careful, we’ll make the wrong assumptions about the foods we buy.

To find out if you know what you’re buying and what it means for your family’s health, test yourself against our list of 10 surprising facts about organic food safety.

1. Organic foods can come from non-organic sources. Although regulations for organic produce are designed without a lot of wiggle room, the rules for processed organic foods (like, say, a box of all-natural macaroni and cheese) aren’t quite as stringent. In fact, foods containing up to 30% non-organic ingredients can still be labeled as “organic.” The point is that unless that cheesy mac package says “100% organic,” you could be ingesting ingredients produced via conventional farming techniques – and that means fewer restrictions on pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and genetic modification.

2. Some pesticides are fair game on organic farms. The desire to avoid pesticides is a big reason for the popularity of organic foods, but did you know that organic farms are allowed to use certain types of chemicals on crops? For a farm to produce, pests have to be controlled – and even when growers aren’t using chemicals with names that are 26-letters long, they’re using something.

Many natural chemicals are given the okay under USDA regulations, and in high enough doses, even environmentally friendly substances can cause illness. If you buy organic, it’s enough to know that a recent USDA produce survey found that 20% of 2009’s organic lettuce haul contained pesticides. What does this mean for you? If you’re a smart shopper who cares about organic food safety, that’s the question to ask every time you make a purchase.

Biplane Crop Duster spraying a farm field.3. Prohibited chemicals can still get on organic farms. Pesticide application on conventional farms is an inexact science, and this can cause problems for eco-friendly farmers. For example, pesticides that are prohibited in organic farming can drift from neighboring farms via wind or water. Farms are required to institute a buffer zone against the spread of chemicals as part of their organic certification, but it’s not always enough protection

Even pesticides that are completely banned from conventional and organic farming, such as DDT, can continue to pollute soils for decades. When contamination is discovered before crops are harvested, cleanup and recovery costs can be extreme. If they go undetected, those chemicals will ultimately end up on your plate.

4. Conventional foods aren’t much different from organic ones. If you buy organic groceries partly to avoid food-borne illness, you should know that at least one study suggests that organic food safety is about equal to that of conventional foods.

Researchers at Stanford found that organic produce is 30% less likely to contain pesticides, but that almost all produce, regardless of the source, is well within government safety guidelines. Bacterial contamination was also about the same, as 7% of organic samples and 6% of conventional samples tested positive for E. coli. One bright spot for sustainable lifestyle proponents: conventional animal products were 33% more likely to contain antibiotic-resistant microbes.

woman washing red bell pepper5. You should still wash your organic produce. If you only do one thing to increase organic food safety at home, make sure you clean all of your organic fruits and veggies. Since the difference between organic produce and conventional produce is minimal, you should treat organic carrots exactly as you’d treat the old-school ones, and that means a good rinse. Not sure that running them under the tap will get the job done? For a deep clean, soak your produce in a mixture of vinegar and water.

6. Pest-free plants might be safer plants. Organic crops aren’t blasted with synthetic industrial pesticides, so they’re forced to rely upon their own defenses a bit more than conventional crops do. Some of these plants will therefore ramp up their production of natural defensive compounds, which themselves can have toxic effects on consumers. In fact, one attempt to select for pest resistance in wild potatoes, celery, and parsnips resulted in crops that had to be pulled from markets.

Is it better to have traces of synthetic pesticides on conventional crops, or do you prefer higher levels of mildly toxic natural compounds? It’s something you’ll have to weigh when you’re filling your shopping cart.

7. Organic peanut butter has a not-so-smooth past. The organic peanut butter in7. your cupboard is probably safe. It’s worth noting, though, that some of the biggest food safety violations in the U.S. over the past several years happened at organic peanut processing plants.

In 2009, a salmonella outbreak caused at least 691 cases of food poisoning and nine deaths, resulting in one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. In 2012, an organic peanut butter plant in New Mexico was shut down after contamination caused another salmonella outbreak and made 42 people ill.

8. The process of organic certification is imperfect. An extensive set of rules and regulations determines whether or not a farm can become a certified organic producer. There’s always a way to bypass the bureaucracy, though.

The process of organic recognition begins when an organization requests and pays for the certification – and you know what that means. Certifiers are financially vested in making sure their clients stay in business. In 2011, the USDA found that two organic certifying agencies were in violation of multiple regulations. Enforcing the rules that allow for a sustainable lifestyle is more difficult than you’d think, and consumer safety can suffer because of it.

red barn blue cloudy sky9. Small farms aren’t the ones pushing for organic regulation. Gigantic food corporations like Coca-Cola, General Mills and Kraft have been investing in smaller organic companies over the past few years. Their market share is growing, and they enjoy new leverage in terms of pushing for new organic regulations and getting older ones modified. Sustainable lifestyle advocates argue that this has resulted in a watered-down definition of organic food. They note that potentially hazardous substances like carrageenan have even been cleared for organic use as a result of increased corporate influence.

10. Organic certification and organic food safety are different. The most shocking fact about organic food safety is also the simplest: the USDA’s seal of organic approval has nothing to do with food safety. Organic farmers do what they do because people care about sustainable farming, and because organic produce is more natural, but there are no additional consumer safety guidelines.

How to Ensure the Safety of Your Organic Groceries

If there’s no built-in organic food safety, how can you make sure your loved ones stay safe and healthy while you practice organic living and work to build a sustainable lifestyle?  First, get in the habit of reading labels so that you can really learn about the processed organic foods you plan to serve. Second, wash your organic produce as thoroughly as you would any other fruits and vegetables. Finally, you can push for better regulation in the organic food world by joining forces with a grassroots organization.

Do you have an eye-opening food safety fact that we left off the list? Got any suggestions for other folks who are interested in safer organic living? Please leave a comment below!