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FSA study findings may put some consumers off from buying organic food

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Organic food: FSA study leaves bad taste in the mouth

Tom Levitt

1st August, 2009

The findings from the FSA's organic food review have added little to our knowledge but left consumers short-changed on real benefits of organic food.

What is the point of the findings of a review that says it could not find enough evidence to base them upon?

Well what it certainly achieved was a good headline for media outlets and most significantly, a thought that might stick in consumers' minds: organic food is no better than conventionally produced food.

But that may well be doing a disservice to the average consumer.

As the Soil Association and others have pointed out over the past few days, people are not necessarily buying organic food because they think it will make them healthier. They know about pesticides, they know about animal welfare and they also know about fair trade.

Pesticides and health

One of the chief criticisms of the review, aside from the lack of studies it was able to find, was its narrow focus. Why, organic food supporters ask, did it limit itself to health and nutrition?

An FSA spokeswoman said it was responding to consumer demand for guidance on health and nutrition. But then why did it not look at pesticides, a known health issue for consumers of organic products?

In a blog posting on Thursday, the FSA director of Consumer Choice and Dietary Health Gill Fine suggests we shouldn't worry about pesticides.

'It’s a fact that conventional production methods permit the use of a wider range of pesticides than organic. That said, some pesticides can be used in organic production. Use of pesticides is strictly regulated across the board and all food in the UK is regularly monitored for any residues – this goes for both food produced in the UK and imported food.

'All of this means that the safety of all of our food is kept under close watch,' she wrote.
The Soil Association disagreed. It said we should be worried that the average industrially-produced apple may have been sprayed up to 16 times with 30 different chemicals.

It added that the European Commission had reported links back in 2006 between certain cancers, male infertility and nervous system disorders and exposure to pesticides.

Another trade body, Organic Farmers and Growers has pointed out that the FSA themselves say on their website, 'eating organic food is one way to reduce consumption of pesticide residues and additives'.

Both organic bodies are calling for more research into just what constitutes acceptable exposure and what are the long-term effects of pesticides on human health.

US response

Criticism from elsewhere in the world was equally forthright. The US Organic Consumers Association said the FSA review had ignored 15 relevant studies that had come out since their February 2008 cut off date. Studies that could have changed the outcome of the report.

Firstly, there was the EU-funded study published in April 2009 that found higher levels of 'nutritionally desirable compounds' in organic crops.

It also cited a US study published in 2008 by the Organic Centre that found nutrient levels in organic food to be the 25 per cent higher than in conventional food.

Too late?

Whatever organic food bodies argue now may already be too late. The consumers who already buy and trust organic are unlikely to be swayed be such a narrowly-focused report.

But potential new consumers may be put off.

'Of course we can argue until we’re blue in the face about the real benefits of organic food and farming. The truth is that the headlines alone will damage the livelihoods of hard working organic farmers and food producers,' said the Organic Farmers and Growers Association.

And at a time when the government is trying to actively promote healthy living that may end up being a mistake the FSA comes to regret.

'Instead of commissioning more reports to test organic, government should look to clean up the whole food sector and make sure all food can earn the same degree of public trust [that organic food has], said Food Ethics council director Tom MacMillan.

Useful links
Europe-wide Quality Low Input Food study

Organic food centre
Organic Consumers Association
Organic Farmers and Growers

See also
Editor's blog: read the FSA report closely


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