The Safety of Organic Food

by Elizabeth Henderson

If we limit the concept of food safety to freedom from contamination by pathogenic microbes, the three main potential sources of contamination of fresh produce are water, manure, animal or human, and worker hygiene.


As required by the NOFA-NY Organic Certification standards, Peacework Organic Farm washes all of our produce with drinking quality water. The water for washing and for the irrigation of the field near the barn comes from a spring, for which most of the watershed is on Crowfield Farm where no chemicals have been used since Doug and Becky moved here in 1983. Although a much larger stream, the Gonargua, runs through the farm, but we do not want to use that water because it is polluted with high levels of attrazine, an herbicide, and ammonium. We irrigate the larger Fairville field from a small stream that has no obvious sources of pollution.


Also according to organic standards, we never use raw manure to fertilize a food crop. We do include manure among the ingredients for our compost. The composting process heats the manure to over 140 degrees fahrenheit, hot enough to kill most pathogens. We have used well-aged horse manure mixed with bedding and wood chips, but only before a cover crop, such as rye or oats. We grow the cover crops to prevent soil erosion and to build up organic matter when we spade them into the soil. We use well-aged mature compost to make compost tea which we spray on tomato plants to prevent blight. We do not use human manure on crops for human consumption. We compost the contents of the composting toilet in the barn and apply that to trees.

To my astonishment, a few years ago I had a call from a member of GVOCSA who was nervous about bringing her children to the farm because we used bone meal as a fertilizer and she feared Mad Cow Disease. She set me to thinking about the sources of bone and blood meal. The spread of genetically engineered crops (GEOs) makes this issue sharper. While it seems extreme to worry about such minutia, if a cow is shot up with BsT (also known as rBGH), will its bones or blood contain GEOs? Rather than torment myself with such questions, I have chosen to replace as many purchased inputs as I can. Instead of blood meal, I am using worm castings in our potting soil with good effect. I have installed a small worm ranch in my basement where red wriggler worms eat my food scraps. We still buy rock phosphate, our replacement for bone meal. Composted chicken manure, high in phosphorus, might be a better substitute. (I have recently learned from an organic dairy farmer in England, that the true cause of Mad Cow Disease may be heightened levels of manganese in the spinal fluid of conventionally managed cows in England caused by the use of an organophosphate insecticide.)


We have set up a sink with soap next to the wash up area behind the packing shed. As in a restaurant, a worker on a farm with unwashed hands or a contagious illness can contaminate fresh produce. We ask that everyone who helps wash and pack our vegetables be sure to wash your hands before touching the food. If anyone has a communicable illness, please let us know and we will find other work for you to do. We do not use anti-microbial soaps or chlorine. We believe that excessive use of anti-microbial soaps results in the breeding of microbes that are resistant to antibiotics. We should limit our use of anti-microbial materials to specific instances when a known pathogenic microbe is present. According to Cornell research, ?chlorine solutions are no more beneficial than plain, potable water. While chlorine may work well to purify clear water or to sanitize clean kitchen surfaces, it does not seem to work well in the complex chemical environment of fruit and vegetable surfaces. In addition, a chlorine solution may leave residues of chlorinated compounds on the produce, and the amounts of safety of such possible residues have not been studied.?

The ?Seventh Generation Guide to A Toxic Free Home? has this to say : ?Chlorine is an acutely toxic chemical created through the energy intensive electrolysis of sea water. This manufacturing process also creates extremely toxic byproducts...In addition to its direct toxic effects on living organisms, chlorine also reacts with organic materials in the environment to create other hazardous and carcinogenic toxins, including trihalomethanes and chloroform, and organochlorines...Chlorine is listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act as a hazardous pollutant and is on the EPA?s Community Right-to-Know list. ? (p.29)

It seems to me there is no place for chlorinated wash water in organic vegetable processing.

Eater Health

Focusing on microbial contamination is a rather narrow way to interpret food safety. A broader view would also include food quality, nutrition and freshness, the risk of hunger, the safety of the people who work in the food system, and the safety of the environment from the production and distribution of food. On all of those counts, the US food system does not win a top grade.

Even in the narrow sense of foodborne diseases, the US food supply shows severe signs of strain. According to E. Todd writing in the Journal of Food Protection, in the US approximately 6.5 million cases of foodborne diseases are counted each year, including 9000 deaths. The US Government Accounting Office released a report in 1996 warning that the risk of foodborne diseases has been rising. Their analysis of the causes points directly at the increasingly industrialized and global food system. The Accounting Office lists as probable causes: the crowding of ever larger numbers of animals in confinement systems and feed lots; the rise of suppressed immune systems among the population; the appearance of new, highly virulent, or newly antibiotic resistant pathogens, such as Campylobacter, Listeria and E. coli 0157:H7; and the spread of meat-associated bacterial contaminants to apple cider, lettuce, tomatoes, melons, alfalfa sprouts and orange juice. The report estimates the overall annual cost to the economy as anywhere from $5.6 billion, if you only count direct medical expenses, to $22 billion, if you include lost productivity. The US Center for Disease Control concludes a study on the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria with the assertion that it is the result of the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed. Agricultural use, much of it for growth promotion, accounts for 40 percent of the antibiotics sold in the US. The Minnesota State Epidemiologist points out an additional set of causes: the increase in the consumption of out-of-season produce shipped from countries with low health standards, and the fact that so many of the food workers are low paid, uneducated and lacking in proper health care.

Organic agriculture offers a hopeful alternative. Our integrated approach to food production and nutrition sets us against a huge medical-pharmaceutical establishment that pushes pills instead of whole foods. Even the health food stores urge more pills - supplements, minerals, herbs in a powdered form, highly processed garlic - on their customers. What ever happened to the idea of a balanced diet of fresh foods in season? These old truths about the path to health are still valid.

In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry likens the food system to the circulatory system and points out that disease first impairs circulation and then stops it: ?Only by restorinbrg the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health. We lose our health - and create profitable diseases and dependencies - by failing to see the direct connections between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving.?

At Peacework Organic Farm, we reconnect ourselves to the earth. The delicious taste of our organic vegetables is our strongest argument against the pharmaceuticals? distorted version of food as medicine. We choose varieties for taste and nutritional value. The way things are going, we will probably have to find a way to produce our own seed to be sure we have a secure supply. Organic agriculture is not an industry. We are part of a worldwide movement for a healthy planet which includes both food safety and food security. Participation in organic farming and gardening is better medicine than any spa. When our detractors fulminate against pathogenic microbes, we can offer our own definition of safe food:

  • builds body health and strengthens the immune system
  • is produced non-destructively, without poisoning soil, water or air
  • provides safe work for producers all along the food chain from the field to the table
  • is accessible to all people at a price they can afford to pay.