The Organic Food Industry: Smearing the Competition
ArialBy Alex Avery, Hudson Institute
Organic food proponents are a vocal group who passionately defend their
philosophy. While the organic industry regularly impugns the food
safety and environmental impact of conventional farming--indeed,
building their consumer base with such assaults--they vehemently defend
organic farming against all attack. Unfortunately, the organic
industry’s honesty fails to match its zeal.
Case in point: the Soil Association, in response to “recent negative
stories about organic food,” released an “information sheet” claiming
that the bacteria E. coli O157:H7, a dangerous
foodborne pathogen, “developed as a direct result of intensive farming
practices, such as the use of dried poultry manure in livestock diets
(as a protein source), the use of in-feed antibiotics (as growth
promoters) and the close confinement of farm animals in factory farming
According to the experts, however, there is absolutely no evidence to
support the Soil Association’s claims.
Outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have increased in recent
years and scientists are struggling to find an explanation. E.
coli is a common bacteria in animal and human waste, but the
O157:H7 serotype is a virulent pathogen, causing an estimated 25,000
cases of illness and 250 deaths per year in the United States alone.
The O157:H7 serotype was first discovered in humans in 1975, followed
in the early 1980s by high-profile outbreaks transmitted in hamburger
Jim Keane, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Meat Animal
Research Center, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on
E. coli O157:H7. Keane readily admits that it is
possible that intensive livestock production
contributed to the emergence of O157:H7 as a foodborne illness risk.
However, Keane says there is zero scientific evidence supporting the
theory--none. “We’ve tested literally thousands of manure samples from
cattle all over the world. The O157:H7 serotype is in every beef
operation we’ve ever tested,” says Keane, “including very low-density
cattle herds. One low-density herd we tested had even been
geographically isolated for more than five years--I’m talking the
middle of nowhere--yet we still found the O157:H7 serotype. It’s
Dr. Thomas Whittam with the Institute of Molecular Evolutionary
Genetics at Pennsylvania State University has done extensive genetic
analysis of E. coli O157:H7 and its close relatives.
His research indicates a long evolutionary history for pathogenic
E. coli strains and he dismisses the notion that the
O157:H7 serotype arose within the last few decades as a result of
Whittam states, “The first reported case if O157:H7 causing disease in
humans was in 1975 in an older woman in California. But that date only
tells us when we first detected O157:H7 in humans, not when the
serotype came into existence.”
According to Dr. Whittam’s research, there is too much genetic
variation within the O157:H7 serotype for it to have developed
recently. “I don’t think that O157:H7 developed within the last 30
years,” says Dr. Whittam, “the amount of genetic variation within the
O157 serotype is too great to have developed in that short amount of
time. Several thousand years would be a better estimate.”
What about the Soil Association’s claim that the use of antibiotics in
animal feeds has somehow contributed to the emergence of O157:H7? “It
makes no sense. The O157:H7 serotype is universally sensitive to
antibiotics. They die easily” says Dr. Keane. Because there is no
antibiotic resistance, the use of antibiotics couldn’t possibly have
contributed to the emergence of O157 as a human pathogen.
In other words, the Soil Association is making a completely baseless
accusation against competing food producers as part of a public smear
campaign intended to scare consumers into buying its products. This is
the lowest of marketing ploys.
Sadly, this has been the core marketing strategy of the organic
industry from its inception. For years, organic proponents insisted
their products were healthier for consumers because they were both more
nutritious and free of harmful synthetic pesticides. After 30 years of
exhaustive research, we now know that residues of synthetic pesticides
pose essentially zero health risk. The American Institute for Cancer
Research, American Cancer Society and National Research Council of the
U.S. National Academy of Sciences have all affirmed this conclusion.
Recently, the organic foods industry has even had to back off its
claims that its products were more nutritious. The U.S. Organic Trade
Association admitted on U.S. national television recently that organic
food is no more nutritious or safe than other foods. The British
organic industry was forced to admit the same thing to the House of
Lords in 1999.
What about the environment? Surely, organic farming is healthier for
the environment? Actually, it’s not. Organic farming forbids the use of
synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, instead opting for animal manures
(which increase the risk of foodborne illness) and nitrogen-fixing,
green-manure crops. Both of these sources use large amounts of land.
Conventional farmers, in contrast, tap into the unlimited supply of
nitrogen in our atmosphere, taking zero land to produce their
fertilizer. With more than one-third of the planet’s entire land area
already taken from nature for crop and livestock production, organic
farming threatens to needlessly take millions of additional square
miles of land from wildlife.
The real question is why the public, and more importantly the media,
have so readily accepted the self-serving accusations and
unsubstantiated claims of the organic industry for so long? Obviously,
they bought hook-line-and-sinker the naïve notion that organic farmers
didn’t care about profit. Now that it is abundantly clear that organic
fanatics are willing to lie like used car salesmen, it is high-time for
a more sober look at organic farming.
Alex Avery is Director of Research and Education at the
Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues in Churchville,