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January 25, 2006

Buying organic; BSE in the news

Illustration by Rafael Lopez

Consumer Reports recently produced a review of organic foods: Organic products: When buying organic pays (and doesn't). The investigators group foods according to how likely it is that a fruit, vegetable, or meat product contains pesticides and other additives. They also consider the price difference between organically- and conventionally-grown foods.

For example, CR suggests purchasing organic varieties of what the Environmental Working Group calls the "dirty dozen": apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. This is because these foods "consistently carry much higher levels of pesticide residue than others," based on USDA testing.

On the other hand, CR determined that purchasing organic seafood isn't worth it. The USDA has not established organic certification standards for seafood. And organically-produced fish can still contain mercury and PCBs.

It is important to point out that these evaluations are based solely on a comparison of certain contaminants -- what is typically seen on organic foods versus what is typically seen on non-organic foods. There is no consideration of environmental impact, animal production and handling practices, or other conditions that characterize organic farming. But CR does a good job of explaining why a certain organic food is deemed 'worth it' or not in their opinion. It's a good starting point for consumers to assess their own beliefs and value judgements in deciding whether to buy organic or not.

There was one part of the report that popped out at me as especially intriguing. For the most part, all the comparisons were an assessment of chemicals: pesticides, heavy metals, etc. There was no assessment of risks from infectious agents save one: BSE. CR suggests buying organic meat in part because of the reduced "risk of exposure to the agent believed to cause mad cow disease." They also mention that buying organic meat, poultry, and eggs is a good idea because of the antibiotics used in conventional farming and the greater potential for toxins in non-organic feed. I must say that worrying about contracting the human form of BSE, variant CJD, doesn't keep me up at night. But BSE and other prion diseases are definate health concerns.

The BSE point is especially interesting in light of Japan's recent re-instatement of U.S. beef ban just a month after it lifted its initial ban; and the continuing discovery of BSE in Canada, and suspected BSE in UK cattle born after the 1996 feed regulations.

There is interesting debate between Japan and the U.S. over what is considered risky for BSE. The risk of a cow getting BSE increases with age. This is because the BSE infectious agent, the prions, need time to become established in the brain and nervous system tissues and time to replicate and cause damage. (Find out more about BSE here.)

The U.S. argues that there is little or no risk of BSE in very young cows (less than 30 months old). Furthermore, the very small levels that would exist in these young cows would be too small to detect using the clinical tests that are presently available. These beliefs have resulted in two U.S. policy decisions: first, it is not useful to test any cows younger than 30 months old, and second, brain and other risky tissues pose no risk for transmitting BSE. Japan, on the other hand, tests all ages of cattle and prohibits risky tissues (also called specified risk materials or SRMs) from cows of any age to be included in any food product. This last difference is what prompted the ban reinstatement, and the difference is summarized nicely in this posting to ProMed-mail.

Personally, I tend to agree that testing of symptom-less cows less than 30 months old is futile with current technology. But I also think that the current feed bans for cattle in the U.S. are too permissive. I think they should read as the USDA organic standards do: "The producer of an organic operation must not feed mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products to mammals or poultry" (see National Organic Program regulation § 205.237 Livestock feed). I just don't want to eat meat from a herbivore animal that has been fed animal products. The organic rules aren't perfect, but they are a step in the right direction.

Posted by rigd0003 at January 25, 2006 1:17 PM | News | Public Health | Science and Policy