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March 9, 2000


Greg Conko's Response to Avery: Organic Debate Continues!


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com/

From: Greg Conko (by way of C. S. Prakash) Subject: RE:
Alex Avery' Response on E. coli and Organic FoodP


You know that I think very highly of both you and Dennis. I also agree
that your position has been mischaracterized, and that Dennis has been
unfairly savaged by the press. But I think that, in this case, you may be
stretching the data a little too far. Your hypothesis states that, because
manure is much more likely to be used as a fertilizer in organic farming
than in conventional farming, the probability of contracting E. coli
poisoning from organic foods should also be greater. While this theory is
intuitively compelling (and I hope very badly that it is eventually
validated), I can not say that the evidence you and Dennis have mustered
is especially convincing.

In 1998, you examined outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 infections reported to
CDC in 1996 (the most recent year for which data were then available). In
that year, CDC received reports of 29 outbreaks of E. coli 0157:H7
infections, with 488 total cases. Of these, 10 outbreaks and 167 total
cases could clearly be attributed to food products. And of these foodborne
illnesses, only 2 outbreaks and 118 total cases could clearly be
attributed to organic/natural foods. The first of these outbreaks (47
cases in the US states of Connecticut and Illinois) was attributed to
organically-grown lettuce. The second outbreak (71 cases in California,
Colorado, and Washington state) was attributed to unpasteurized apple
juice from the Odwalla juice company. And while Odwalla does not advertise
its juices specifically as organic, the company, its advertising, and its
products certainly can be said to represent the organic "sensibility."

Each year, the US CDC receives data from several of the US states
regarding some 50 or so "Notifiable Diseases". Among these diseases are
things like AIDS/HIV, Hepatitis, Encephalitis, and several foodborne
diseases. States are not required to report cases, and many of them do
not. In the case of foodborne diseases, outbreaks (which are clusters of
two or more cases of a given disease that can be traced to a single
vector) are more likely to be reported than individual and otherwise
unrelated cases. For both these reasons, the data suffer from selection
bias. And the sample, which includes just two outbreaks that can clearly
be attributed to organic food, is way too small to draw a significant

I honestly believe that your hypothesis is sound, and I would like to see
some real research conducted to confirm it. And, like you, I had hoped
that the claim of heightened risk from organic foods would be treated more
fairly by the press. (After all, most mainstream reporters are not at all
critical of the junk science coming from the environmental movement.) But
looking at a few selectively reported cases from a single year doesn't
seem to be convincing anybody who doesn't already have a predilection to
believe you in the first place.


Gregory Conko
Competitive Enterprise Institute
Suite 1250
1001 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 331-1010
Fax: (202) 331-0640