Criticisms and Frequent Misconceptions about Organic Agriculture: The Counter-Arguments
Misconception Number 4: Organic farming increases the risk of food poisoning: organic food potentially contains more dangerous bacteria (such as E. coli because organic farming uses animal manure) and mycotoxins due to the absence of fungicide use.
Summary of Counter-Arguments:
|- The risks associated with E. coli and other dangerous micro-organisms are not higher in organic foodstuff.|
- Furthermore in many cases, organic standards related to manure and soil management go further than governmental codes of good agricultural practice, thereby, offering additional protection for consumers.
Details of Counter-Arguments:
Organic food is as safe to
consume, if not safer, than any other kind of food. As cited above, organic
products contain significantly lower levels of pesticide residues and
other harmful substances than conventional products. The message that
organic foods are more dangerous is another argument spread by Dennis T.
Avery who claims that “Organic foods have clearly become the deadliest
food choice."  These arguments are rather poorly substantiated. For instance, one
argument says that "consumers of organic food are also more likely to
be attacked by a relatively new, more virulent strain of the infamous
salmonella bacteria." This statement was based on a Consumers Union
study in 1998 showing that "premium" chickens had higher levels
of salmonella than regular supermarket chickens. But the statement forgets
to mention that the premium chickens were not organic. One common argument
is the presumed higher risk of E.
coli poisoning due to the use of cattle manure to fertilize crops in
Organic Agriculture. Again, this argument forgets that manure is also used
widely in non-organic agriculture. Conventional
farmers commonly apply tons of raw manure as well with no regulation
whatsoever. Organic standards set strict guidelines on manure use in
organic farming: either the manure must be first composted, or it must be
applied no later than 90 days before harvest (or 120 days in the US organic
regulation). The evidence shows that there is not more risk of pathogen
contamination of organic food than non-organic food. For instance, a
survey conducted by the PHLS  of over 3,000 ready-to-eat organic vegetables found no evidence of
dangerous microbes that might cause disease in humans, “indicating that
overall agricultural, hygiene, harvesting, and production practices were
In particular, the risk
associated with E. coli is not
higher in Organic Agriculture. Indeed, E. coli bacteria are found everywhere – in cups of tea, on our
hands, in the air, and in our intestines. Most of the E. coli strains are harmless, but types of E. coli called VTEC
(Verocytotoxin-producing E.coli) produce potent toxins and can cause severe
disease and even death in humans. The most common VTEC strain is O157. It
is thought that the misuse of antibiotics in modern agriculture and
medicine led to the rapid development during the 1970s and 1980s of more
aggressive strains of E. coli
that are immune to therapeutic drugs. The most common cause of E. coli O157 infection for humans
is eating contaminated foods, particularly inadequately cooked minced beef
(often in the form of beef burgers) and milk. The US Centers for Disease
Control (CDC) identify the main source for human infection with E. coli as meat contaminated during
slaughter. Therefore, application of manure to the fields is not the main
cause of contamination.
Organic food must meet all quality and safety standards that apply
to non-organically produced food. But the
standards for manure and soil health in organic farming often go further
than the government codes of good agricultural practice. For instance,
according to a United States Department of
Agriculture review, grass-fed and hay-fed cattle, which are required in
many organic systems, seem less likely to produce the very toxic E.
coli O157:H7 strain than grain-fed cattle. There are many ways in
which Organic Agriculture promotes animal health, thereby reducing the
level of pathogens in animal feces. Soils of organic farms exhibit much
higher levels of biological activities, which lead to less persistence of
harmful organisms due to competition with soil-born micro-organisms.
The occurrence of mycotoxins in agricultural production depends on many factors, not only on the use versus non-use of fungicides. The main factors determining the occurrence of mycotoxin producing organisms (weather, site, and storage conditions) influence organic and conventional farming systems in the same way. Organic farms do not use fungicides, but have other advantages when it comes to preventing mycotoxin contamination (e.g., cereal varieties with longer stems can be used and growth regulators are banned, which leads to a lower infection risk of the ears). More regular mechanical soil cultivation (used for weeding), and more complex crop rotations on organic farms reduce the concentration of inoculum. More stable cell walls in the plant tissue due to the lower fertilization level in organic farms reduce the possibility for infections with toxin producing fungi. The restrictions on importing fodder components reduce the risk of mycotoxin contaminations established under foreign climatic conditions. Moreover, in conventional agriculture, many fungicide applications actually increase mycotoxin levels; in some cases, application of a fungicide only partially controls the target fungal pest, placing the fungus under stress and triggering its normal defense mechanism, including the production of mycotoxins. In other cases, a fungicide may work well on certain species of fungi, but opens an ecological window for other species of fungi that, in turn, may produce dangerous mycotoxins. All in all, organic farming is not more endangered by risk of contamination of products with mycotoxins than other farming systems . This is also the conclusion of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which states that, "studies have not shown that consuming organic products leads to a greater risk of mycotoxin contamination."
 Avery, Dennis T. 1998c. The Hidden Dangers in Organic Food. American Outlook Magazine 1(3):19-22, Fall.
Public Health Laboratory Service, The Microbial Examination of Ready-to-Eat Organic Vegetables from Retail Establishments, June 2001.
 See H. M. Paulsen and F. Weißmann (2002) and Cummins J (2004).