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Organic vs. Non-Organic


The organic sector of the food industry has grown 15% from 2004 to 2007. Nearly two-thirds of American shoppers bought at least one organic product in the year 2007. Organic food sales in the United States hit $13.8 billion in 2005, up from $11.9 billion in 2004 and a mere $3.6 billion in 1997. There are many reasons why consumers choose to purchase organic products. They believe organic foods:

  • are more nutritious

  • have no pesticides on them

  • have no antibiotics or hormones used in their production  

  • are better for the environment

  • will save the family farm


The 2002 USDA Secretary Dan Gilkman announced at the unveiling of the Organic Stamp "Let me be clear about one other thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality. Organic is how it is produced. Just because something is labeled as organic does not mean it is superior, safer, or more healthy than conventional foods. All foods in this country must meet the same high standards of safety regardless of their classification."

A considerable amount of research has been conducted on the nutrient content of organic vs. conventional foods over the last century. The most complete review was published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture in 1997. It examined 150 research studies over the last 75 years, including the good, the bad, and the untrustworthy.

The results:

  • Cereals: 30 studies were reviewed and no clear difference was determined between organic and conventional products.

  • Potatoes: 22 studies were reviewed and no clear difference was determined between organic and conventional products.

  • Vegetables: 70 studies were reviewed and no clear difference was determined between organic and conventional products.

  • Fruits, Nuts, Seeds and Oils: 12 studies were reviewed and there was no major difference between the sections. One study, however, found higher levels of fungal toxins in organic nut products. (Fungal toxins will be discussed later in this training).

  • Bread: 6 studies were reviewed and no clear difference was determined between organic and conventional products.

  • Milk and Dairy Products: 9 studies were reviewed and no clear difference was determined between organic and conventional products.

  • Meat and Meat Products: 5 studies were reviewed and there was not enough data to make a meaningful assessment.

  • Eggs: 1 study reviewed and it was determined that free-range hens had slightly lower protein content, but slightly higher carotenoid content. Carotenoids are pigments that act as antioxidants, so they may help prevent cancer. Research using antioxidant supplements has indicated no cancer protective effect, but this may not be true for antioxidants consumed as part of the food itself.

The conclusion of the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture's study is that there is no clear or consistent difference in the nutritional value between organic and conventional foods. There is no evidence whatsoever that a diet high in or exclusively of organic foods is any healthier for you than a diet of conventional foods. There is plenty of evidence, however, that a diverse diet, high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish is healthy.


"While synthetic pesticides are prohibited in organic farming, some 'natural' pesticides may still be used, and they are not necessarily less worrisome just because they're natural." - Ned Goth, Senior Scientist, Consumers Union (publisher of Consumers Report)

A pesticide is defined as "any preparation for destroying plant, fungal, or animal pests." USDA has created a National List of approved and banned substances for organic farming. A copy of this list can be obtained from Any natural substance on the list is approved. Any synthetic substance not on the list is banned. There are synthetic substances that are allowed under the USDA National Organic Program. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that 20 pounds of pesticides are used per person per year in the United States. At least 50 of these pesticides are classified as carcinogenic. A carcinogen is any substance or agent that tends to produce cancer.

Organic farming is NOT pesticide free! Many natural pesticides approved as organic are heavily refined, processed and toxic substances. The major pesticides approved for organic farming are:

  • Horticulture Oils are insecticides derived from highly refined crude petroleum oil. A few are derived from plant oils.

    • Horticulture oils work primarily by suffocating insects physically, although they can also disrupt insect feeding behaviors and insect metabolism chemically.

    • Horticulture oils are used widely in both organic and non-organic farming.

  • Sulfur is a contact poison used mainly as a fungicide (kills fungi), but also as an insecticide (kills insects) and rodenticide (deters rodents).

    • Sulfur has a relatively low toxicity to humans, birds, fish and bees but is applied heavily.

    • Because of its heavy application rates, sulfur is believed to represent a greater environmental risk than many synthetic fungicides.

  • Copper Compounds are used as fungicides and bactericides (kills bacteria).

    • Copper sulfate, one of the more widely used copper-based pesticides, is caustic and classified as Highly Toxic by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).

    • When copper sulfate was given to lab animals it caused reproductive effects, birth defects, mutagenic effects and cancer causing effects.

  • Pyrethrums are a group of chemical nerve toxins produced in the flower of African chrysanthemums.

    • Pyrethrum is toxic to aquatic life and was classified as a Restricted Use Pesticide by the EPA.

    • In 1999, the EPA reclassified pyrethrum as a "likely human carcinogenic" after rodent testing showed that it caused tumors in rats.

  • Rotenone is a toxic plant extract obtained from the crushed roots of several tropic plant species.

    • Rotenone is one of the most effective fish killers known.

    • It can cause long term kidney and liver damage and is a suspected carcinogen.

    • It causes birth defects and kills fetuses.

  • Bacillus Thuringiensis is commonly referred to, as Bt. It is a soil bacterium that produces a protein toxic to caterpillars.

    • Mammals, birds, and fish do not have the cellular receptors for the toxin, making them immune to the effects.

    • While Bt is considered safe for consumers, farm workers spraying Bt solutions have reported respiratory problems, and BT bacteria has caused fatal lung infections in mice.

  • Spinosad is a new class of biological pesticides that the National Organics Standards Board approved in 2002.

    • Dow AgriScience, part of the Dow Chemical Corporation, developed Spinosad. It is obtained from a natural fermentation bacteria found in soils.

    • Spinosda has less than 5% the toxicity of aspirin.

    • Because of its safety and specificity, spinosad has been rapidly adopted by both non-organic and organic farmers for use on a wide array of fruit and vegetable crops.

  • Neem Extract is a botanical insecticide/fungicide obtained primarily from the seeds of the neem tree.

    • Little is known about the ways in which neem extract works to kill insects and fungi, although its toxicity to mammals appears to be relatively low.

  • Sabadilla is an alkaloid (similar to nicotine and cocaine) obtained from seeds of the South American lily.

    • Sabadilla is the least toxic of the botanical insecticides.

    • It is used as a broad-spectrum contact and stomach poison.

Organic farmers claim to use a combination of techniques to avoid having to "resort" to using pesticides, such as: planting resistant crops, using bio-control organisms (which means releasing insects that are natural predators of another type of insect), rotating crops, and keeping crops healthy. All farmers use these techniques in varying degrees and combinations. These techniques are only partially effective in preventing pests and/or disease outbreaks. The biggest difference in pest management between organic and non-organic farmers is that organic farmers generally accept higher amounts of crop damage and loss before resorting to using pesticides. They can do this because consumers pay a higher price for products.

Organic farmers may spray ten times more pesticides than non-organic farmers. Why? Many of the organic approved pesticides break down quickly in the environment so they need to be sprayed more often. Organic pesticides are generally less effective than synthetic pesticides so they are sprayed at higher concentrations as well. Organic pesticides pose exactly the same sort of environmental and health risks as do non-organic pesticides and often pose more risks than synthetics. The difference between organic and synthetic pesticides is not their toxicity to pests, people or the environment, but rather their origin.

The Consumers Union (CU) and the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) have analyzed extensive government testing data of pesticide residue on fresh fruits and vegetables. The data was from more than 26,000 samples of conventional produce but there is only government data on 194 samples of organic fruits and vegetables. The results were that 1/4 of organic fruits and vegetables were found to contain measurable residues of synthetic pesticides. The CU and OMRI published in the Journal of Food Additives and Contaminates, "none of the choices available to consumers (organic, non-organic, or no-detectable trace) is completely free of pesticide residue." Recent USDA testing found synthetic pesticide residues on half of organic peaches, broccoli, and celery it tested. 1/3 of organic cantaloupe and lettuce had synthetic pesticide residue. And nearly 10% of organic produce that was examined contained higher levels of synthetic pesticides than the average found on non-organic foods; USDA and CU only tested for synthetic pesticides not the organic pesticides that are more likely to be used on organic farms.


The following is the bottom line statistic from recent testing by USDA: Conventional milk in the United States is 100% free from artificial hormones and 99.999% free of antibiotics.

- National Milk Drug Residue Base: Fiscal Year 2005 Annual Report. 2006. Food and Drug Administration for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Consumers pay 50 to 100% more for organic milk thinking they are buying protection from exposure to contaminates, when the milk is identical. Milk, eggs, and soy products all naturally contain hormones or hormone-like substances. Soy and other plant products contain estrogen chemicals at levels often higher than the natural levels of estrogen in meat, milk, and eggs.

The only hormones allowed for use in dairy cows is a biotech "nature-identical" copy of the cows natural growth hormone, called bGH. The biotech version "recombinant," called rbGH, is used roughly in 1/3 of the US dairy cows. rbGH extends peak milk production and results in 15 to 20% higher total milk yields. rbGH does not increase the size of a cow's udder or cause swollen, over-full udders. Dairy farmers do not add hormones to the milk itself and cows milk is not full of chemical contaminates.

rbGH is injected into the cow's muscle, not the udder. It does not alter the levels of natural hormones in milk or add any "artificial hormones" to the milk. The milk remains indistinguishable because the biotech hormone is essentially identical to the cows own natural bGH. The FDA would not have approved the use of rbGH if it wasn't safe and did not result in wholesome milk. Meat from dairy cows given rbGH is also safe for consumption. Because rbGH is a protein, it has no effect on cows or people if it is eaten. Our digestive system breaks it down as food like all other protein.

Because rbGH is made in bacteria (which is a living biological system) using the DNA blueprint from cows, it is 95% identical to the cows own natural bGH protein and acts just like the natural hormone. The exact process is used to make replacement human insulin.

There is a triple plus layer of purity verification protecting consumers from antibiotics in milk. First there are FDA withdraw periods meaning that no milk is allowed to be sold within a certain time frame of the cow being administered antibiotics. Two, every single delivery of milk to the bottling and processing plant in the US is tested for antibiotics. Three, processors often test milk in their storage tanks as well because a mistake there could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost profits, and four, milk leaving the bottling plant gets randomly tested as well.

In 2005, 0.3% of all milk processed in the US tested by private and government agencies tested positive for antibiotic traces and were discarded or safely blended into livestock feed. One out of every 3,000 pounds of milk has traces of antibiotics and because this milk has never entered the food chain the likelihood of purchasing milk with antibiotics is far less than one in 3,000. Scientists contracted by the FDA compiled and analyzed its milk testing data stating that the US milk supply is more than 99.999% free of antibiotic residue. There simply isn't a food sold that is assured of being more pure.


There is no artificial or supplemental hormones allowed or sold for use in pigs and poultry. So right away we can say that 75% of the total US meat supply is 100% free of "artificial hormones". Beef makes up 25% of all meat consumed in the US. About 2% of all beef has detectable traces of synthetic hormones. Six hormones are allowed for use in US and Canadian beef production. Three of the six are natural; estradiol, progesterone and testosterone. They are produced naturally in all humans (including children) throughout our lifetime at considerably higher levels than found in beef from hormone treated cattle.

Three of the hormones approved are synthetic and mimic the activity of natural hormones: Melegestrol (MGA) mimics progesterone, Trenbolone acetate (TBA) mimics testosterone, and Zeranol mimics estradiol. They are allowed because they are safe, improve beef quality and improve growth rates and feed conversion efficiency (5 to 15% more meat from the same amount of feed). Thirty years ago steer had 2 inches of back fat and the meat was heavily marbled with fat. Consumers have become more concerned with heart health and beef producers responded by using leaner breading stock and supplemental hormones. Natural hormones are lost during castration, replacing those with supplements resulted in leaner beef.

In 1956, the FDA approved supplemental hormones for use in beef production. FDA regulates that hormones be administered through time-release implants placed under the skin of the animal's ear at about six months of age. Each implant contains a specific legally authorized dose of hormones. The implant ensures that hormones are released very slowly so the concentration of the hormone in the animal remains relatively consistent and low. Because the ear is discarded at slaughter the implant does not enter the food chain. According to USDA, a person would need to eat over 13 pounds of beef from an implanted steer in order to equal the amount of estradiol found in one egg! One glass of milk contains about 9 times as much estradiol as a half-pound of beef from an implanted steer. A half-pound of potatoes has 245ng of estrogen equivalent to 1.3ng for a 1/4 pound of untreated beef and 1.9ng from beef treated with an implant.

The use of these hormones is so safe the World Health Organization and UN's Food and Agriculture Organization expert committees didn't even establish a Maximum Residue Limit for it because they concluded that residues occurring from proper use were so low they are unlikely to pose any health hazards. The FDA made the same decision. A pound of beef raised using estradiol contains approximately 15,000 times less of this hormone than the amount produced daily by the average man and 9 million times less than the amount produced by a pregnant woman.

In 2004, Melegestrol (MGA) was found in 20 samples out of 238 tested at levels less than 0.1 millionths of a gram. In 2003 USDA found MGA in 7 out of 187 fat samples tested at just over 5 millionths of a gram, well below the FDA's maximum residue limit of 25 millionths of a gram. For comparisons sake, prepubertal boys produce an estimated 150 millionths of a gram per day of progesterone, 150 times more than the contaminated beef. No matter who or how many groups have examined this issue, no realistic health threats have been found from the use of hormones, natural or synthetic, in beef production.



There are humane animal treatment laws that prohibit withholding of antibiotics from farm animals if they are needed to treat a life threatening disease. Every animal has to deal with microbial diseases and infections. Organic farmers either do not administer antibiotics to sick animals and allow them to die or treat the animals and section them off to be sold as non-organic. It is common practice that organic farmers have a non-organic section so they have someplace to send the animals that require treatment. Humans use antibiotics when they get a bacterial infection at doses hundreds of thousands of times higher than levels of antibiotic residue found in meat samples. In reality antibiotic residues are found in less than 2% of the US meat supply and less than 0.1% has antibiotic residues above the FDA limit.

There is a 1 in 20 chance of finding any antibiotic residue in conventional pork, which works out to about 5%. There is only a 1 in 1,000 chance of there being residue over the FDA limit in pork. Beef and chicken only have a 1% detection rate and 0.1% chance of residues being higher than the FDA limit. It's important to remember the FDA's maximum residue limits do not pose any health risks at all.

There is also debate over the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotic feed additives to promote growth rather than the use of antibiotics to treat disease or infection, which are therapeutic. Some people claim that sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics has increased the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant microbes on our food. This is true. However, these bacteria rarely cause human infections. Of the 20 more serious bacterial infections in humans, 12 cannot be acquired from food. The remaining 8 each account for 1% of all cases of antibiotic-resistant illness in people. The world health experts agree that not a single person has become allergic to antibiotics from food exposure. Even those allergic to antibiotics are not threatened by traces occasionally found in food.


According to USDA National Organic Programs standards, all organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access to pastures. They may be temporarily confined for reasons of health, safety, and the animal's stage of production, or to protect soil and water quality.

The only non-organic animals raised in cages are egg-laying hens (usually 3 to 5 per cage) and mother sows. Mother sows are kept in "farrowing crates" that prevent them from rolling onto the little piglets. Egg laying hens are caged to prevent cannibalism, reduce disease incidents and ease timely egg collection. Other than that no cages are used.

In confinement dairy farms, cows are allowed to roam within the barn, where it is cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, and they are allowed to eat and drink at will. Pigs are raised in groups of 5 to 10 in open pens in a climate controlled hog house with more than enough room to move around. Turkey and chicken are raised in houses where the interior is wide open to all the birds with plenty of room. They are raised indoors because the birds are more comfortable and there is less loss of birds to predators and severe weather. The resulting poultry is safer for human consumption. Infection and disease rates are very low in confinement livestock rearing systems unless the farmer is doing something wrong. If disease and infection losses were consistently high, farmers would stop raising animals that way.


Many consumers believe that purchasing organic foods supports small family farms. However, big companies, not small farms make the majority of the organic products in large supermarkets.

  • Cascadian Farms & Muir Glen = General Mills

  • Morningstar Farms, Kashi = Kellogg

  • Back to Nature, Boca Burgers = Kraft

  • Odwalla = Coca-Cola

  • Seeds of Change = M&M/Mars

  • Silk, White Wave, Alta Deans, Horizon = Dean

  • Ben & Jerry's, Ragu Organics = Unilever

  • Knudsen Juices = Smuckers

There is such a high demand for organic products in the United States, up 15% from 2005, that there is not enough of a supply of domestically grown organic products; suppliers are now purchasing organic products from other countries. A lot of organic products sold in the United States actually come from China. In winter months many organic products like apples come from New Zealand and organic cucumbers come from Mexico. Currently about 1/3 of the organic produce sold in the United States is imported from Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, China and Central and South America.


"The real bad news for you organic buyers is that the average concentration of E.coli in the contaminated organic spring mix was much larger... the organics tested were twice as likely to have E. coli and had larger amounts."    - ABC News program 20/20 titled How Good Is Organic Food? February 20, 2000

Organic foods have a clearly higher risk of food borne illness and fungal toxins. Even though they have a higher risk they are still relatively low compared to global and historical terms. 70 million people in the US are afflicted with a food borne illness each year, many of them exposed to pathogenic bacteria via fresh fruits and vegetables. The available evidence indicates that organic produce is considerably more likely to carry food borne illness due to organic farmer's heavy reliance on animal manure for fertilizer. Animal manures are primary sources for infectious microbes. Conventional farms use manure as well, but rarely on fruit or vegetable crops. They use it mainly for crops for livestock feed. Conventional farms are allowed to use synthetic fertilizers so they do not need to use manure.

The University of Minnesota examined 32 organic farms and compared the produce to 8 non-organic farms in Minnesota looking for E. coli and Salmonella. The research stated that organic produce was six times more likely to be contaminated by generic E. coli than conventional foods. Generic E. coli was present in only 2 out of 129 samples of conventional produce; which equals about 1.6%. Generic E. coli was present in 46 out of 476 organic samples, which is 9.7%. In the Minnesota research 1/3 of organic onions showed the presence of E. coli 10% of the time compared to 0 conventional. Nearly 1 in 4 heads of organic lettuce was contaminated with E. coli (22.4%) compared to 1 in 6 conventional (16.7%). According to the organic farms from Minnesota, all 32 reported using "aged or composted animal manure as a main source of fertilizer." Only 4 out of the 8 conventional farms used manure at all.

USDA's National Organic Program standards allow raw, uncomposted manure to be applied as close to 90 to 120 days before harvest, even for crops intended for human consumption. Composted manure can be applied after as little as three to five days of composting. Studies have found that E. coli can survive in cow manure for 70 days and can multiply in foods grown in manure, unless heat or additives such as salt or preservatives are used to kill the microbes.

Salmonella and other illness bacteria, such as campylobacter, have been known to come from organic and free-range chickens. Campylobacter is the leading cause of food borne illness in at least 2 million cases per year. A study from 2001 in Denmark revealed organic chickens are 3 times more likely to be contaminated by campylobacter than conventional chickens. All 22 organic chicken flocks were infected (100%) but only 29 out of the 79 conventional flocks were infected (36.7%). A British Food Standard Agency test in 2002, found 99% of organic chicken flocks were contaminated with campylobacter and 56% of conventional flocks were also contaminated.

Experts theorize that the higher contamination rate of Salmonella and campylobacter rates of organic chicken is due to the more time spent outdoors where they are exposed to wild bird feces and other sources of bacteria. Organic birds take nearly twice as long to reach a marketable weight, thus providing greater opportunity for bacteria to infect the birds. Proper cooking will kill these illness-causing bacteria, but they can contaminate cutting boards and utensils. Stringent food safety and hygiene must be practiced.

In addition to E. coli, Salmonella and campylobacter organic foods also have a higher rate of fungal toxins, where the risks range from birth defects and esophageal cancer to liver and kidney damage. There are a large variety of fungal toxins produced by many different fungi. Fungal toxins pose both long term and short-term food safety risks.

Fungal toxins are a problem in organic foods because they are prohibited from using the most effective fungicides, which are all synthetic. UK food safety officials are beginning to implement new limits on the amount of a toxin called fumonisin in grains, especially corn. A recent British Food Standard Agency study showed organic corn meal had radically higher contamination rates from fumonisin. All organic brands of corn meal tested by the agency were beyond safety levels and had to be recalled. Six organic corn meals tested failed with an average fumonisin level over 9,000 ppb (parts per billion). Two of the organic corn meals had fumonisin levels of about 16,000 ppb. On the other hand, 4 out of 27 non-organic corn meal products were also above the safety limit. Out of the 23 conventional corn meals that didn't fail, the average fumonisin level was only 120 ppb. The FSA (British Food Standard Agency) set the limit of 500 ppb of fumonisin in food.

Fumonisin begins causing excess tumors in rats somewhere between 25,000 ppb and 50,000 ppb. Some of the contaminated corn meal had fumonisin levels over 1/3 the level proven to cause cancer in rodents. Since the discovery and characterization of fumonisin, South African medical authorities have established a link between high fumonisin levels in corn and high esophageal cancer rates. Fumonisin contamination of homemade corn tortillas has been linked to an outbreak of birth defects, including spina bifida, near Brownsville, Texas.

Even though you have just read significant information about the health risks of organic and non-organic foods, all in all our food supply is amazingly safe and healthy! Just because there are risks doesn't mean that any type of fungi, antibiotic, or pesticide with harm you. The United States food supply is highly regulated and even though pesticides, synthetic and natural, are used on all our food, it is still very safe to eat, whether you choose to purchase organics or conventional foods.


Avery, Alex. The Truth About Organic Foods, Missouri: Henderson Communications L.L.C, 2006

Burke, Cindy. To Buy or Not To Buy Organic, New York: Marlowe & Company, 2007

USDA. "National Organics Program" [Online] Available,

Web sites for additional information: - resources for city dwellers who are interested in finding or starting a public garden space - an online directory of more than 75,000 sustainable farms - uses lessons learned from the garden and kitchen to promote environmentalism and earth stewardship to schoolchildren - find a farmers' market, family farm, or other sources of sustainably grown food in your area of the United States

To receive a certificate of training hours you must complete a quiz based on the material above. You are required to get all questions correct. If you do not get 100% on the quiz the first time, you may take it over again. The results of the quiz will be emailed to Mid Michigan Child Care Food Program. When we receive the results of your quiz, a certificate of training completed will pop up that you can print. A copy of the certificate will also be emailed to you. 

Organic vs. Non-Organic Quiz

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