EATING WELL; Anti-Organic, And Flawed
By Marian Burros
DENNIS T. AVERY wants organic food to go away. And he doesn't
care what it takes. Four years ago, he said that organic food could
not feed the world without destroying the environment. Now, he
says it's lethal.
In an article in the fall issue of American Outlook magazine,
published by his employer, the Hudson Institute, a conservative research
group, Mr. Avery wrote, ''Organic foods have clearly become the
deadliest food choice.'' This is the case, he said, because organic farms
use animal manure and do not use chemicals or permit
pasteurization. The last assertion is untrue, as were several other
statements in the
The accusation might have gone unnoticed, but excerpts from the
article were published in The Wall Street Journal and continue to be
picked up around the country, by The Associated Press, The Tampa
Tribune and trade industry publications.
The simplest definition of ''organic'' is food grown without
hormones, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. But Mr. Avery, whose work is
financed by agribusiness, used the terms ''organic,'' ''free
range,'' ''natural'' and ''unpasteurized'' interchangeably.
''I grant you that I've mixed together natural and organic,'' Mr.
Avery, the author of ''Saving the Planet With Pesticides and Plastic''
(Hudson Institute, 1995), said in an interview last week. ''But
to me they are distinctions without significant difference in terms of public
His most combative accusation is based on his reading of 1996
data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
showing, he said, that ''people who eat organic and 'natural'
foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be
attacked by a
deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (O157:H7).''
Yet, some of the foods that caused the outbreak, which he called
organic, were not, like unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice.
Mr. Avery's claim that ''consumers of organic food are also more
likely to be attacked by a relatively new, more virulent strain of the
infamous salmonella bacteria'' was based on a Consumers Union
study in 1998 showing that ''premium'' chickens had higher levels of
salmonella than regular supermarket chickens. But the premium
chickens were not organic.
In the article, Mr. Avery took the Food and Drug Administration
to task for failing ''to issue any warnings to consumers about the higher
levels of natural toxins their researchers regularly find in
organic foods.'' In the interview, he said that that assertion was based on a
statement by Dr. Robert Lake, an official in the agency's Center
for Food Safety and Nutrition.
Dr. Lake denied making such a statement, saying, ''We don't go
out of our way to sample organic food, and hence I don't think we are in
a position to say anything one way or another about it.''
Mr. Avery wrote that because ''organic farmers use animal manure
as the major source of fertilizer,'' there are higher levels of harmful
bacteria in organic food. Katherine DiMatteo, the executive
director of the Organic Trade Association, said that manure is not the major
source of fertilizer on organic farms (it is also used in
conventional farming) and that when it is used, certain rules must be
Mr. Avery said he had never ''bothered that much about consumer
safety aspects of organic food until O157:H7.'' His goal, he continued,
is to prevent organic agriculture from becoming the norm. ''My
big concern is that we do not have room on the planet to feed ourselves
organically,'' he added.
The attack on organic food by a well-financed research
organization suggests that, though organic food accounts for only 1 percent of
food sales in the United States, the conventional food industry
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