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Behind the organic label

As the industry grows, skeptics are challenging the health claims.

September 06, 2004|Melissa Healy | Times Staff Writer

These are good times for those who grow and sell organic foods. But there may be trouble in paradise.

Prompted by a quest for safer, healthier diets and a cleaner environment, more American consumers are buying the bountiful harvests of organic farmers. Last year, U.S. spending on organic foods reached close to $10.4 billion, making this the fastest-growing segment of the American food industry. Amid scares over mad cow disease, mercury in fish and produce tainted with harmful bacteria, new customers are joining existing ones in embracing organic foods as a sanctuary from harm and a surer route to long life and good health.

But as organic products -- and their claims to superiority -- have grown more common, scientists, policy analysts and some consumers have begun to ask for proof. Where's the evidence, they ask, for the widespread belief that organic foods are safer and more nutritious than those raised by conventional farming methods?

The short answer, food safety and nutrition scientists say, is that such proof does not exist. Indeed, by one well-established measure of healthfulness -- contamination with fecal matter and potentially harmful bacteria -- some organic foods may pose greater risks to consumers.

As food fights go, this one might not be as raucous as the cacophony over low-carb diets or reshaping the food pyramid -- yet. But since 1989, when organic-food activists raised a nationwide scare over the pesticide alar in apples, many scientists have seethed quietly at what they perceive as a campaign of scare tactics, innuendo and shoddy science perpetrated by organic food producers and their allies.

Now, many of those experts, who had been content to pursue their research in academic anonymity, are being called to testify before congressional committees and weigh in on a swirling public debate about America's diet. As they begin to find their voice, the organic food industry may find them about as welcome as a plague of aphids. And it will take more than cow manure and dried chrysanthemum leaves to make them go away.

Dr. Joseph D. Rosen, a Rutgers University food science professor on the cusp of retirement, is one of the organic food industry's newest pests. For years, Rosen said, he kept his head down, conducting and publishing narrow research on how to measure pesticide residues in food. But he was moved to begin speaking out in 2002, when Consumer Reports inveighed against proposals to irradiate meat -- a measure Rosen believes could prevent more then 350 deaths per year due to food-borne illnesses.

Last month, at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting in Philadelphia, Rosen presided over a daylong symposium that asked the question: Is organic food healthier than conventional food?

"There's certainly not sufficient science to prove that the claims of organic food advocates are true," he said.

The symposium was the second this year to question the benefits of organic food. In March, the First World Congress on Organic Food convened scientists, farmers and consumer analysts to consider the safety and nutritional aspects of organic food. It too found a dearth of evidence to support claims of superiority.

"We don't have a huge wealth of literature here," said Dr. Ewen C.D. Todd, director of Michigan State University's National Food Safety and Toxicology Center, which hosted the gathering. "It's going to be difficult to say science has spoken," he added.

"This really, truly is a coming of age for the organic movement," said Alex Avery, director of research and education at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues and a vocal critic of the organic food industry. "They have been legitimized to the point where they're no longer the kooky fringe, and they're now subject to the same intense, microscopic scrutiny that conventional farming has been. This is a mark of their success."

Those meeting under the banner of the American Chemical Society's agrochemical group -- chemists, toxicologists, microbiologists and risk analysts -- were admitted skeptics to begin with. As lone voices, many have spoken out before. But for what may be the first time, they are raising their voices together.

These critics picked apart studies and reports posted on websites, cited in the media and touted in organic marketing that suggest organic food is a safer and more nutritious choice. They presented data collected by the federal government, studies published in respected journals of food safety and nutrition and, in some cases, results from their own labs to show that differences are, at best, tiny and probably meaningless.

And they traced the growing tentacles of a onetime counterculture movement that has begun to look and act more like an industry dedicated to expanding its market and increasing its influence on controversial issues of food safety and supply, such as bioengineered crops and irradiation of food.

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