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Organic vs. Conventional: Pundits Are Welcome to Their Own Opinion, But Not Their Own Facts

Because Food Safety News holds an important perspective in the industry, I was surprised to see the website publish a commentary by Mr. Mischa Popoff.

Mr. Popoff has spent the last few years promoting his self-published book, Is It Organic.  He has made irresponsible and unsupported claims that 80 percent of all organic food in North America is imported and riddled with fraud — a grave disservice to the hard-working organic farmers in this country and their loyal customers.

The subtitle of his book says it all: The Inside Story of Who Destroyed the Organic Industry, Turned It into a Socialist Movement and Made Million$ in the Process, and a Comprehensive History of Farming, Warfare and Western Civilization from 1645 to the Present.

Whoa Nelly!  If you connect the dots, by looking at the other issues that Mr. Popoff writes about, and commonly published on ultraconservative websites (challenging climate change, defending genetically engineered food production, challenging the efficacy of hybrid automobiles and even parenting issues) you would have to conclude that organic food is a component of some kind of Bolshevik plot to take over this country.

He joins the father and son team of Dennis and Alex Avery, of the Hudson Institute, in taking every opportunity to denigrate the reputation of organics.  Many of the think tanks that support the Averys, and now Popoff, have received funding from Monsanto, DuPont and other interests in the agrochemical and biotechnology industries.  Companies that produce farm chemicals and genetically engineered seed quite rightfully might be concerned by the growing competition stemming from the shift to eating organically by consumers.

I encourage you to read The Cornucopia Institute’s backgrounder, Who Is Misha Popoff.

Popoff has had almost no exposure in the mainstream media here in the U.S., so it is disturbing to find his byline on Food Safety News. 

There is no factual basis for his thesis, articulated in his op-ed, that somehow organic food is more dangerous than conventional food and that the basis of the problem is the lack of testing for pathogenic contamination.

It is incumbent on all farmers and food producers to follow basic food safety protocols.  The organic law prescribes a set of standards for farmers and food processors.  Organic production is subject to the same regulatory protocols prescribed by the USDA and FDA and any applicable state and local laws.

In addition, Popoff’s essay includes the following inaccurate and misleading information:

1.      His claim that, “over 25 years of research has failed to find any harm from GM technology,” is patently false.  There’s been virtually no human health testing (not required by the federal government) and there have been almost no lifetime trials on laboratory animals (just short term studies).  Furthermore, there is a growing body of peer-reviewed, published scientific literature pointing to some significant abnormalities in laboratory animals and livestock being fed genetically modified feed.

Consumers choosing to eat organically are exercising caution by operating under the “Precautionary Principle.”

2.      He suggests that any organic food contaminated with pathogens should not be allowed to be certified as organic.  This is a specious argument because any food, organic or conventional, contaminated with dangerous pathogens should not be marketed for human consumption, period.

3.      He uses the example of a prior outbreak of contaminated bean sprouts in Europe as a model of organic production protocols run amok.  And he suggests that contaminated water might have been a factor.  However, producing bean sprouts is a high risk enterprise, be they organic or conventional, and using tested, potable water is universally a regulatory requirement.Most problems with contaminated bean sprouts, as the example he cited in Germany, are thought to emanate from contaminated seed which, again, is a hazard for organic and conventional production alike.  There is nothing inherently more dangerous about organic bean sprouts than conventional.

4.      His claim that organic food consumption in the United States is about 1 percent of the market is inaccurate.  I have seen authoritative reports pegging it at 3 to 4 percent with some commodities, like organic milk, being at about 6 percent, and fruits and vegetables significantly higher than that.  These numbers are based on market studies by the USDA, the Organic Trade Association and published by respected trade journals in the produce industry.

5.      He suggests that the director of the USDA’s National Organic Program, Miles McEvoy, took it upon himself to institute random testing for agrochemical contamination in organics.  The truth is that this testing requirement was part of the Organic Foods Production Act passed by Congress.  Pressure from The Cornucopia Institute, Consumers Union and other advocacy groups prompted an investigation by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General as to why testing had not been implemented as required by law.

6.      The cost of testing, sample collection and transportation requirements (sometimes refrigerated) for chemical residues and pathogens, as suggested by Mr. Popoff, on 100 percent of organic operations, would greatly increase the cost of organic food.  Cornucopia supports the 5 percent , annual, random testing requirement.  At this rate, the USDA will conduct over five times as many audits as the IRS currently conducts.  It is a prudent adjunct to the established rigorous annual inspection of both organic farms and facilities and all documents pertaining to organic management.

In closing, the fundamental precept of Mr. Popoff’s attempt to challenge the credibility of organic food production is flawed.  Organic food is subject to the same standards of cleanliness, and regulatory safeguards, as any other food in the market, imported or domestic. 

There is a history of inexcusable neglect during this presidential administration and prior administrations in the execution of food safety laws to protect U.S. citizens.  And Congress has been grossly remiss in failing to adequately fund the infrastructure and inspectors in the field, especially in scrutinizing imported food.  We should demand excellence from our government in this regard and we certainly are not getting it.           

Again, we respect the important journalism being done at Food Safety News, in putting pressure on the food industry and government to, literally, clean up its act.  Publishing Mr. Popoff’s opinion piece was an unfortunate aberration.


Food Safety News

Nutrition Facts Label to Get Major Updates

For the first time since it was developed in the early 1990s, the Nutrition Facts label is getting a new look.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today introduced its plans for updating the label to include larger serving sizes, calorie counts in larger type and “added sugars” values, with the hope that it will help consumers reduce their risks of chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke.

“These are very important changes and our goal here is to design a label that is easier to read and one that consumers can understand,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg at an announcement event with first lady Michelle Obama at the White House Thursday. “This proposal is the culmination of years of research, study and requests for public input.”

“As consumers and as parents, we have a right to understand what’s in the food we’re feeding our families because that’s really the only way that we can make informed choices — by having clear, accurate information,” Obama said at the event which was part of the fourth anniversary celebration of her Let’s Move! campaign to combat the childhood obesity epidemic. “Ultimately, that’s what today’s announcement is all about.”

Key aspects of FDA’s proposed changes include:

  • A greater emphasis — with larger and bolder type — on calories.
  • Added Sugars value listed – The food industry is likely to take issue with this aspect of the proposal. “They do not want consumers to know how much sugar they are adding, especially since so many health authorities are relating sugar intake to obesity.
  • Calories from fat would no longer be listed. (But Total, saturated and trans fat will still be required.)
  • Updated serving sizes that better reflect what people actually eat. Serving sizes are not a recommendation but simply a lens through which people can understand nutrition.
  • The number of servings per package will be more prominent.
  • Updated Daily Values for various nutrients and shifting the Percent Daily Value (%DV)  to the left of the label. FDA wants to help consumers visually and quickly put nutrient information in context.
  • Amounts of potassium and Vitamin D would be required on the label, while listing Vitamins A and C would become voluntary.

Marion Nestle, nutrition expert and professor at New York University, told Food Safety News that she reacted to the proposal with “surprise that it’s as consumer-friendly as it is” and “delight that it did everything I hoped it would.”

Of course, consumers will still need to look at the label. “But even a casual glance ought to tell you something about calories,” Nestle said.

“We realize that the label alone won’t magically change how America eats, but we hope that once consumers decide to implement changes in their diet that lead to healthier lifestyles, it will provide them with the tools to be successful,” Hamburg said.

FDA has divided the changes to the Nutrition Facts label into two proposed rules. One updates nutrition information and the label design to help highlight important information. The other covers the changes to serving size requirements and labeling for certain package sizes.

They will be published to the Federal Register and a 90-day comment period opened. FDA plans to finish the final rule by 2015.

Food Safety News

GMA: Time is right for Nutrition Facts changes

The Nutrition Facts panel is due for an update, said the Grocery Manufacturers Association in response to changes proposed by the FDA Thursday.


Follow @SN_News for updates throughout the day.

“It is critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science,” said Pam Bailey, president and CEO of GMA, in a statement. “Equally as important is ensuring that any changes ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers.”

The updates proposed by FDA would include disclosure of “added sugars,” vitamin D, potassium, and serving sizes updated to reflect what people actually eat vs. what they should eat. “Calories from fat” would be removed and calories and serving sizes would be displayed in larger bolder type. The %DV (daily value) would be moved to the left.

“We look forward to working with the FDA and other stakeholders as these proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts label make their way through the rule making process,” said Bailey.

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Food Irradiation: Facts and Figures

In October 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a draft risk assessment on the levels of contaminants in spices. The report made headlines nationwide for including the finding that 12 percent of spices imported to the U.S. were contaminated with everything from insects and rodent excrement to human hair and staples.

Another major finding was that 6.6 percent of imported spices, which make up 80 percent of spices consumed in the U.S., were contaminated with Salmonella during a three-year study from 2007 to 2009. Other pathogens found during sampling included Clostridium perfringens, Shigella and Staphylococcus aureus.

Increasingly in recent years, more spices consumed in the U.S. are undergoing irradiation treatment to eliminate risks associated with microbial contamination. The process involves exposing food to bursts of gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams, and may also be used to increase shelf life since it destroys spoilage-causing bacteria and molds.

FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization have all signed off on the safety of irradiated foods, although critics such as the Center for Food Safety say it may be abused as a tactic to cover up poor sanitation practices and can create trace amounts of cancer-causing compounds.

Irradiation makes its way to grocery shelves

Irradiation as a food safety intervention has taken a foothold among a few grocery commodities, most notably spices and imported fruits. Certain marketplaces in the U.S. have also begun offering irradiated ground beef and shellfish products.

About one-third of commercial spices in the U.S. are irradiated today, which equates to around 175 million pounds of spices a year, according to Ronald Eustice, author of the monthly newsletter Food Irradiation Update and former executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council.

Imported fruits cannot enter the U.S. without undergoing irradiation treatment to kill any potential insects from coming in as stowaways. That means papayas from Mexico, mangoes from India and dragonfruit from Vietnam all go under the rays before making it to the produce section of grocery markets.

At least one beef company, Omaha Steaks, uses irradiation as a selling point. The company irradiates all of its ground beef to prevent risk of pathogenic E. coli or Salmonella transmission.

Northeast regional grocery chain Wegmans Food Markets has offered irradiated ground beef as an option to customers since USDA approved the process for meats in 2000. Schwan’s Food Service also irradiates every pound of ground beef found in its food products.

More food companies may very well turn to irradiation in the future as a way to avoid costly recalls and outbreaks, Eustice said.

“Every week, there’s another recall of some sort. Some aren’t big, but they’re there,” he said. “The Foster Farms chicken [Salmonella outbreak] could have been prevented. It’s the best protection against recalls and litigation.”

A handful of companies are also now irradiating molluscan shellfish, most notably oysters. Irradiated oysters, however, introduce some of their own labeling problems.

Concerns with irradiation

FDA requires the labels of irradiated foods to include the Radura, the international symbol for irradiation. But shoppers may not see the Radura on some irradiated products, such as oysters or processed foods containing irradiated ingredients, said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety.

Processed foods containing irradiated spices, for example, do not contain a Radura on the box. Restaurant patrons may also receive irradiated foods without knowing it.

Some consumers wish to avoid irradiated foods for a number of reasons, Hanson said, including concerns that the irradiation treatment is used to mask quality problems with the food.

“Why should we have people arguing that they need to irradiate ground beef because it’s likely to have E. coli in it?” Hanson said. “The first thing that you need to do is process meat in a way where you don’t have E. coli.”

Hanson added that consumers paying for fresh produce may feel misled if their fruit was irradiated to last longer before spoiling.

Center for Food Safety has also expressed concerns about potential carcinogens created in the irradiation process, such as benzene and toluene.

Eustice said that those claims have “no validity whatsoever,” likening the amount of benzene created from irradiation to the amount created when bread is turned to toast or coffee is roasted.

“If you were concerned about the chemicals they’re talking about, you’d quit drinking coffee completely,” Eustice said. “There’s no basis in fact.”

Hanson agreed that while an individual irradiated food item was not cause for concern, the cumulative effect of an irradiation-heavy diet may be.

“One thing is not going to cause tremendous problems, but if you start irradiating all the beef, all the chicken, all the seafood, the lettuce [...] you may have changes in the food that cause problems,” Hanson said.

Eustice reiterated that the safety of irradiation has long been proven. He added that he’d like to see the government become more proactive about encouraging irradiation of food.

A number of food irradiation facilities are sprouting up around the world, Eustice said, likely making irradiated food products more widely available in the future.

“We’d like to see more retailers like Wegman’s and Omaha Steaks,” Eustice said, referring to their irradiated beef offerings. “They’re tired of recalls.”

Food Safety News