(Beyond Pesticides, May 18, 2021) According to a study published earlier this month in Environmental Health Perspectives, organic meats are far less likely to be adulterated with multi-resistant bacteria (MDRB) than traditional meat. Research from experts at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is the latest news on the health and safety benefits of choosing organic products that ban the regular use of risky antibiotics for grocery shopping. Scientists indicate that contaminated food poses serious threats to consumers, public health and the economy. “The presence of pathogenic bacteria is in and of itself worrying given the potential increased risk of developing foodborne diseases,” said senior author Meghan Davis, PhD, associate professor at Bloomberg School. “If infections are found to be multi-resistant, they can be more deadly and more expensive to treat.”
To determine the level of contamination in various packaged meats, the scientists turned to the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), a collaborative program between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture. For a period of five years from 2012 to 2017, NARMS collected meat products (chicken breast, ground beef, ground turkey, and pork chops) from 19 different US states. In each state, NARMS picked a random grocer within 50 miles of their lab and collected 40 samples each month. A total of 39,349 meat samples were analyzed for the study, including 216 conventional meat processors, 123 processors who split their workflows between organic and conventional meat processing plants, and 3 fully organic processing plants. About 8% of the samples tested were organic while the rest were conventional.
Of the almost 40,000 samples analyzed, 1,422 (3.6%) were contaminated with MDRB. For organic meat, 29 of their 3,235 samples were contaminated (0.9%), while for conventional products 1,393 of 36,114 samples (3.9%) contained dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
This means that organically certified meat is 56% less likely to be contaminated with MDRB. A closer look at the data shows that the total contamination in plants that separate conventional and organic production is lower than in plants in which only conventional meat is processed. Conventional meat from purely conventional facilities was contaminated with pathogenic bacteria approximately one third of the time (34.1%), while conventional meat from shared facilities was only about a quarter (24.1%) likely. “The need to disinfect equipment between batches of organic and conventional meat processing may explain our results in reduced bacterial contamination of products from facilities that process both types of meat,” said Dr. Davis firmly.
Organic is not safer by accident, it is by design. Organic standards, which are regulated in the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, were drawn up with the aim of protecting public health and ecosystem services. Organic standards prohibit the use of antibiotics in poultry after the second day of life and in mammals after the mother’s third trimester. Organically certified meat must also follow a stricter processing protocol. With shared operations, organic meat cannot be processed with the same equipment as conventional meat without first being cleaned and disinfected.
Previous studies have found that organic meat and other animal products are more nutritious than conventional products in addition to food safety. A study from 2016 found a 50% higher content of omega-3 fatty acids and lower concentrations of saturated fatty acids in organic meat compared to conventional meat. This is in large part due to the way the animals are raised. Organic animals are often raised outdoors and fed with grass forage, which has a higher proportion of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, as opposed to grain, which contains less.
In addition to an improved diet and lower bacterial load, organic products contain far fewer toxic pesticides and other chemicals. A study published last July found that conventional milk contains a number of dangerous substances – from growth hormones to antibiotics to pesticides – that are not found in organic milk.
Studies have shown time and time again that switching from a predominantly conventional to an exclusively organic diet significantly changes the amount of pesticides one is exposed to. This is due to the fact that no toxic synthetic pesticides may be used for certified organic food in organic farming.
But organic isn’t perfect. Watchdog organizations have cited many organic producers for conditions similar to those found on “factory farms” using conventional production methods. There are also concerns about the backlog in the USDA’s rulemaking, which has delayed the implementation of rules that would improve the public and environmental health profile of ecological practices.
Despite these shortcomings, organic remains a far better choice than conventionally produced foods. Organic standards are drawn up with the involvement of organic consumers and other interest groups and should be continuously improved. Because of this, it is vital for consumers to keep engaging with the rulemaking process. Raise your voice as an organic consumer by letting the USDA know it must follow and implement recommendations from the expert, the independent National Organic Standards Board, to maintain organic integrity. For more ways you can advocate for the protection and improvement of organic practices, please visit the Beyond Pesticides Keeping Organic Strong program page.
All unassigned positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Source: John Hopkins University Hub, Environmental Health Perspectives