U.K. Study Slaps Organic Food

Brace yourselves: You’re going to see a flood of stories in news outlets major and minor today about a new U.K. study of organic food. Why? Because it found that organic food is no healthier than conventionally produced food.

Yes, I don’t like it one bit. But I can’t just waive it away either. The study was conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a century-old institution that won a $1 million prize from Bill Gates’ foundation earlier this year for its work in epidemiology.

The study isn’t without its flaws, however. The LSHTM did what is known in the research trade as a “literature review”. It gathered up all of the studies done on organic food over the last 50 years–some 50,000 papers in all. It examined their conclusions, and then drew its own. It did not not go back and review the data collected for each study and determine whether it had been gathered and analyzed correctly. It did not rule on whether the reviewing criteria were correct. There are already many critics of its approach and methodology, as you can see in this article from the Guardian of London.

The researchers seem in a way to have understood all this and they left a wide opening for future research. Alan Dangour, one of the report’s authors, had this to say:

Research in this area would benefit from greater scientific rigour and a better understanding of the various factors that determine the nutrient content of foodstuffs.

In the meantime, I’m not changing my shopping.

The Secret Fruit Decoder Ring

Nope, not organic

Nope, not organic

When you get to know a farmer, you get the opportunity to ask him or her all sorts of questions about how the fruits and vegetables you are eating were grown. But what if you don’t get to meet your produce’s maker? How do you know that that nice-looking broccoli under the “Organic Broccoli” sign really is organic? What if it had been grown with pesticides? What if it was really genetically modified broccoli?

The answer to all these questions lies the code–the code in that little sticker stuck on your produce.

Eight years ago, produce marketing groups from around the globe got together to create the International Federation for Produce Standards. It took over the task of standardizing the price look-up codes (or PLUs) that supermarkets had begun introducing a decade earlier. The IFPS has assigned more than 1,300 price codes, and once you know how the codes are created, you can tell how the produce was grown.

Here’s how.  All codes begin with four digits: 4805 would be for a vine-ripe tomato. If the tomato in question is organic, the IFPS tacks a 9 in front, or 94805.  If somebody had monkeyed with the tomato’s genes, its sticker would have to begin with an 8, which is used to designate genetically engineered produce. (You can pause your reading here to look for and toss any vine-ripe tomatoes in your fridge bearing the sticker 84805.)

Alas, this system isn’t perfect. The IFPS is concerned with accurate pricing, not policing. It wants its members to be able to ring up the right price for organic apples every time, and not send them by the cash register as cheaper conventional fruit. But I can’t find any evidence that it has the time or resources to nab a wholesaler who is tagging pesticided produce as organic or failing to flag GMO garbage as such.

In the end, as Michael Pollan has said, you have to shake the hand that feeds you.

Organic vs. “organic”

Beth, a member of the Sparta CSA group, sent me an e-mail today with a link to a pretty disturbing story. The Washington Post details, at great length, how the surging demand for organic food in America has been accompanied by a weakening of federal standards over the use of the “organic” label.

The result? Synthetic additives in 90% of all organic baby formula, additives that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had decided just three years ago violated federal standards. Or how about wood starch in grated organic cheese? Yum.  Want more? Dean Foods, the largest organic food brand in the U.S. and the business behind Horizon organic milk, is undercutting its own brand with a new line of “natural” products.

Beth said in the note that she hopes USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan will get things under control. I hope so too. But while we wait for Washington to act, there is something that every consumer can do: Get to know a certified organic farm and its farmer, and become an active participant in the integrity of your organic food by joining a CSA.

To those of you who already have, my thanks.

One More Reason To Feed Your Kids Organic

A new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley has found that children may remain susceptible to pesticides for longer than had previously been thought.

Scientists have long known that infants are more vulnerable than adults to pesticides because infants have a low level of a key enzyme, PON1. But it had been thought that, by the time children turned 2, the PON1 enzyme was at adult levels. The UC Berkeley researchers have now found that PON1 levels stay low in some children through age 7 and are calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to rethink its rules on pesticide exposure. The EPA began restricting organophosphate pesticides in household products eight years ago, but they are still used in conventional agriculture.

You can read Berkeley’s press release on the study here.

CSA Share Sales Close June 17

HourglassIOur first CSA distribution for 2009 is history and my thanks to all of you who made it happen. But if you’re still thinking about getting super-fresh, local, organic produce by joining the Upper Meadows Farms community-supported agriculture program, I need to let you know that time is running out: We will stop selling shares on June 17.

The shares this year are $595 for a family, $425 for a half (which is the family share but only every other week) and $425 for the individual (smaller share, every week). If you want to understand what kind of value that is every week, read Megan’s post that breaks down the price of the CSA into its cost per meal.

You can join any one of our locations: Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, and in New Jersey in Verona, Sparta and Flanders at Ashley Farms, as well as on the farm itself. We distribute on the farm on Thursday evenings from 4 to 7 and The Hell’s Kitchen distribution takes place Saturday morning at 9:30. On Sundays, we’re in Verona (Essex County) from 12:30 to 1:3o p.m. and then in Sparta from 2:30 to 3:30. As a member of the CSA, you do need to volunteer for 4 hours, but that can be any time between June and the end of October, when our distributions end, and it can be as easy as helping out at the distribution site.

If you think joining the Upper Meadows Farm CSA is right for you, your next steps are:

1. Read this agreement
2. Print and sign this agreement
3. Mail the signed agreement with the payment for the share type you want to Upper Meadows Farm, 16 Pollara Lane, Montague, NJ 07827

You can also pay via PayPal from our main Web site.

The June 17 deadline is coming up fast. So if you want to avoid the supermarket veggie blues, I urge you to get your registration in.

Sales are dandy for edible weeds

Sales are dandy for edible weeds
Demand for dandelions and other edible weeds is growing at grocery stores. “People are getting back to their grandparents’ food,” said Bill Coleman of Coleman Family Farms, which has seen a 25% increase in edible-weed sales compared with last year. The Wall Street Journal

A secret weapon called Sorrel

A secret weapon called sorrel
Sorrel, a plain-looking green, adds lemony tartness and complexity with almost no effort. Several recipes are provided, including one for cold sorrel soup and another for a tart with sorrel and goat cheese. National Public Radio