CHURCHVILLE, Va.—For years, organic farming's true believers have made unsubstantiated charges against mainstream food. Now they're being equally careless, ignoring genuine dangers from organic and so-called natural foods.
I recently wrote in American Outlook magazine (a quarterly publication of the Hudson Institute) that data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that consumers of organic and "natural" foods are eight times as likely to be attacked by a new strain of E. coli bacteria, O157:H7.
These are not trivial risks. This new strain of E. coli I killing thousands of people annually around the world, even the strong. It can leave survivors with permanent kidney or liver damage.
Organic farmers use animal manure in their food production, and manure is a major reservoir of the dangerous bacteria. "Natural" foods too often skip consumer safeguards like pasteurization and anti-bacterial rinses.
My article touched off a hornet's nest.
I was personally condemned in the pages of The New York Times. Two groups that support organic farming, the Massachusetts-based Organic Trade Association and the Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture of Maryland, put out press releases implying I had made up the CDC data. The Internet was abuzz with outrage.
Faced with politically correct indignation, the Centers for Disease Control denied it had done any study of the special dangers of organic or "natural" foods or had any plans to do so.
The director of the CDC's Food-Borne Diseases Branch, who was quoted in the Journal of the American Medical Association as saying organic food was more dangerous "because it's grown in manure," now said he no longer had any opinion on the subject.
When I went back to the CDC data for 1996 (the most recent we've been able to get), it struck me that many of the cases of the new E. coli had not been traced to food sources at all, but to swimming pools, nursing homes and day-care centers.
But of the confirmed E. coli O157:H7 cases traced to a food source, 36 percent involved organic or "natural" foods. Yet these make up only about 1 percent of the nation's food. I had in fact understated the risks.
Yet the March issue of Consumer Reports headlines a completely phony attack on the healthfulness of mainstream fruits and vegetables.
It states that "With some fruits and vegetables, kids who eat a single serving can exceed the safe daily limit of certain pesticides." But the magazine made up its own "safe daily limits," based on an unproven theory about endocrine disruption.
The answer Consumer Reports offers to the supposed danger of pesticide residues? Feed the kids organic food. The same organic food that CDC data show is causing deaths and permanent injury to kids.
Where are the federal health professionals? The United States has spent billions over the past 40 years looking fruitlessly for cancer caused by pesticide residues, because the activists demanded it.
We've never found a single consumer death from pesticide residues, and only a few dozen cases of consumer illness (due to misapplied pesticides).
Why isn't the Centers for Disease Control now conducting a study of organic and "natural" food risks? CDC's own records wave the red flag at these foods, pointing to an estimated 25,000 cases and 250 deaths in the United States per year.
Yet organic-food activists are demanding the government ignore this imminent health threat, and government health agencies are apparently frightened to go against them.
The Organic Trade Association now claims organic farmers "don't really use much manure." The group's executive director, Kathy DiMatteo, says they mostly get their nitrogen from "green manure crops" such as clover and alfalfa.
But organic farmers have been bragging for decades about using animal manure. A common rule of thumb is to compost it for two months at 130 degrees to 140 degrees.
Unfortunately, as a study by Dean Cliver of the University of California at Davis found, the new E. coli can live at least 70 days in a compost pile, and temperatures of 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 degrees Celsius) are required to kill it.
Unless the organic movement puts a voluntary ban on the use of animal manure on food crops, certifies its compost as free of deadly bacteria or irradiates its produce, the health authorities should step in.
In the deadliness contest, the bacteria are beating pesticide residues by a score of hundreds to zero.
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