Feb. 16, 2001 -- In the local supermarket or health food store, organic broccoli, carrots, and spinach lay nestled alongside their conventionally grown cousins -- both types looking amazingly similar. Yet, the price of organic produce is always higher. Recent guidelines handed down from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have leveled the playing field, making the rules regarding organic growing techniques known to all.
More than a few people are tossing organic produce items into the shopping cart, according to industry statistics. Should more of us be going organic, or would we do better to save the extra grocery money for other things?
In fact, the organic industry has grown about 20% every year since 1990, resulting in an estimated $7.76 billion in retail sales during 2000, says Holly Givens, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association.
For many people, buying organic is an environment-friendly statement, Givens tells WebMD. "Buying organic helps maintain water and soil resources that are going to sustain life on the whole planet," she says. "Organic farmers aren't using nitrogen-based fertilizers, one of the chief causes of water-quality problems like algae growth in the 'dead zone' in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and other parts of the country. They're using farming techniques that conserve water and maintain soil quality."
For others, buying organic means taking a stand against the big conventional farms, says R. Ford Denison, PhD, director of Long-Term Research on Agricultural Systems at the University of California at Davis. "Supporting organic farmers can also mean taking a stand against the use of sulfur-containing pesticides, which have caused health problems in farm workers who pick the crops, who stand in it all day long," Denison tells WebMD.
The new USDA guidelines are directed at consumers who have been unclear about just what "organic" means, Givens says. The agency now stipulates that organically grown fruits and vegetables should be produced without use of pesticides or herbicides, synthetic fertilizers or hormones, genetically engineered seeds or sewage sludge -- and without irradiation.
All that doesn't mean that organic is necessarily healthier for you, Denison says. "When the USDA imposed standards on organic produce, it said explicitly that they did not mean that organic produce is better for you," he says. "The standards are simply the rules.
"Kosher food is a good analogy -- it may or may not be healthier for you, but it is produced according to specific rules," Denison tells WebMD. "When people buy it, they know exactly what they are getting."
In fact, the jury is still out regarding organic foods' nutritional status, simply because there haven't been many studies, Givens says. "The scientific data available right now are inconclusive. There haven't been long-term studies of how it affects people who eat specific products," she says. "Most studies have compared conventionally grown to organic carrots, and some have shown organic produce to have more of one vitamin. But those studies have not been replicated."
What governs nutritional value is freshness -- and that means fruits and vegetables, regardless of how they're grown, have to get to the consumer pronto. It's one reason why farmers' markets are a good place to buy produce, Denison says.
But supplying supermarkets involves trucking, and whereas conventional farmers have long had refrigerated trucks to keep produce fresh, organic farmers couldn't always afford them, says Mark Lipson, spokesman for the Organic Farming Research Foundation. "That's changed. Anybody who is marketing to a large chain supermarket is getting it there by refrigerated trucks, delivered fresh to the store," he says. "The organic industry is very professional on that level now."
Once any type of produce gets to the store, its freshness is in the hands of supermarket managers. "If organic produce ever looks less than fresh, it may be because retailers leave it on shelves longer than they should because they've paid more for it," Givens tells WebMD. "Or it could just be a different variety of broccoli.
"Farmers choose a variety because it works better in their soil, in their climate, or because they think it tastes better," Givens says. "Just because it looks different doesn't mean it's any less nutritious."
Pesticides used in conventional farming are a major reason why people drift to organics. Whether those fears are still justified is still not known, Denison tells WebMD. Thirty years ago, DDT and dieldren were banned from use because they were determined to be carcinogenic, and today's standards on pesticides are "very strict," Denison says.
While there are some data, they point to minimal carcinogenic hazards from current levels of pesticides, he tells WebMD. However, the sheer number of toxins naturally occurring in the environment makes the issue complex.
However, "I haven't seen anything that made me think there's a big health risk from eating vegetables with pesticide residues in countries that have regulatory systems," Denison says. "I don't worry about pesticide residue in vegetables grown in the U.S. by conventional methods."
Also, "organic people" have concerns about bioengineered produce -- those fruits and vegetables that are genetically bred to have a "pesticide factory" in every cell, Lipson says. "Every cell in those crops is producing a pesticidal toxin -- which is different from being able to resist the effects of insect pests. That's the subtle difference that the propaganda of the seed industry glosses over."
Whether that's a problem, Denison says, is still being debated. "It's not that anybody made the determination that all those crops are dangerous to human health," he says. "The USDA just banned them from being used in organic production because people are skeptical about them."
As for fears about irradiation, "they remind me of the fuss over microwave ovens," says John Allred, PhD, professor of nutrition at Ohio State University in Columbus. "You don't want to crawl into a microwave oven and turn on the power, but eating food that comes from it doesn't harm you. It's a different form of energy; it would be hazardous if you were exposing yourself to the energy. But you're exposing the food. That doesn't make food radioactive."
The FDA approved food irradiation in the late 1970s to kill insects in spices. "It was designed to break up the DNA of bacteria so they don't reproduce," Allred tells WebMD. Since then, irradiation also has been approved for fruits and vegetables -- although very few are irradiated, and they have to be labeled if they are. "I've never seen a label like that," Allred says. "It just isn't done much. But that's just fresh produce. If it's a packaged product -- like canned strawberries -- I'm not sure they're required to put it on the label. "
If any product was exposed to too much radiation, you would know it, Allred tells WebMD. "It loses all its taste," he says. "You wouldn't want to eat it."
Microbial contamination -- as from use of manure in growing -- is a concern for many, says Donald Schaffner, PhD, extension specialist in food sciences for Rutgers University. While testing has shown that 90% of organic produce "is just fine," there have been cases of contamination. Major restaurant suppliers have tried to use organics, but they haven't met restaurant standards, he tells WebMD.
"I've met a lot of people in the organic food industry, and they're committed to good agricultural practices, to solving this problem," Schaffner says. "We need to recognize, too, that everyone has a role to play. Consumers need to wash organic produce carefully, and once you cut it, make sure you're careful there, too. We've seen cases of Salmonella contamination that occurred when the knife cut through the cantaloupe, bringing bacteria from the outside in. Once you break the integrity of the skin, that food becomes susceptible to microbial contamination."
To make sure you are getting the best organic produce, make sure it looks good, Schaffner tells WebMD. "If it's damaged, if it doesn't look too good, if it's been out awhile, if it's been dropped too many times, it may be more likely to have dangerous levels of microorganisms," he says. "Wash it well. And realize that once you cook or cut it, you need to treat it like any other food that requires refrigeration."