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Thursday, 25 August 2011

Organic foods - Consumer choice and caveat emptor.

The latest and greatest food fad is organic production.   I call it a fad only in that it has its great proponents and zealous followers.  Organicity has certain value in attempting to reduce chemical use  - which should be a good thing.  It is a movement that has agriculturists rethinking some long standing less than sustainable practices - which is a great thing.  
It is not a practice without some risks or costs.   The E. Coli outbreak in Germany that killed at least 44 and caused illness in nearly 4000 was associated with organic farming. Not that most organic farming is associated with such terrible outcomes.   While costs for pesticides and antibiotics may be reduced, there may be a higher cost for labour,  and more animal losses during production, all of which lead to increases in per unit production costs.  The cost to the consumer is increased, sometimes partially attributed to reduced costs through subsidization of regular food production. 
There is little evidence either way whether the quality, taste or nutrient value of organic foods is superior or not to non-organically produced foods.  Nor is there definitive evidence that organic foods reduce other health related risks. I am sure that stating the facts may disappoint some people.  I’m also sure there are many in the industry that would like to tout such claims.  
So,  we have less than definitive evidence that either organic or non-organic is safer, healthier, tastier or more nutritious.  We do know they cost more, and the environmental footprint required to produce equivalent amounts of food is more. Seems the consumer is left to make the choice, and the public health role is to ensure that they can make an informed choice. 
Organic food practices are overseen in Canada by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and through national regulations CFIA Organic Products information .  The value in this is knowing that false claims cannot be made -  something claiming to organic needs to be able to demonstrate that it is organic (there are further graduations of “organicity” that are not enshrined in regulation and are voluntary in nature so claims can be stretched).
On this issue, it is the buyer’s call.  Decisions may be based on values other than health and safety.  Just be an informed consumer as the added cost will come from your wallet.

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