TCS Daily

Lessons From the Recall

By Alex Avery - November 5, 2003 12:00 AM

High levels of a cancer-causing natural toxin have been found in every single organic cornmeal product tested by the UK's food safety watchdog, the Food Standards Agency.


That's a 100 percent failure rate, folks! The FSA instituted a UK-wide recall of the contaminated organic cornmeals.


This is a huge, though belated reality check for consumers who think they're getting something safer when they pay exorbitant prices for organic foods. But don't expect much media coverage of this hugely embarrassing organic incident. Nor any retreat by organic food partisans in the ongoing fight for the hearts and minds of consumers.


The organic cornmeal products were found to contain high levels of fumonisin, a cancer-causing fungal toxin produced by a natural mold that can grow on corn in the field. Recently, the European Commission established a new safety limit for fumonisin in foods of 500 parts per billion (ppb).


All six recalled organic cornmeals not only failed the new safety standard, but failed miserably. The organic cornmeals were contaminated at an average of nearly 20 times the EC safety limit (9,000 ppb), with two brands having more than 30 times the safety limit (16,300+ ppb)! The lowest fumonisin level found in organic cornmeal was still more than 7 times too high. In comparison, twenty non-organic cornmeal products tested by the FSA averaged only 130 ppb fumonisin.


The new EC food safety standard for fumonisin isn't another case of over-regulation, either. Recent tests reveal that fumonisins cause cancer in rodents at levels only moderately higher than those found in the contaminated organic products. At lower levels, fumonisins may contribute to liver and kidney disease. Fumonisins are suspected to be a cause of liver and esophageal cancer in developing countries, where organic farming methods are the norm -- for lack of access to modern farm inputs like low-risk fungicides.


Yet five of the six recalled organic corn meals were grown and processed in the UK and Denmark, not a distant Third World country. Another of the recalled cornmeal products, while not officially organic, was grown and processed in France under the brand name "Nature's Harvest." (They didn't lie: Fumonisins are natural!) For comparison, non-organic cornmeal from Nigeria was found by the FSA to contain only 11 ppb fumonisin.


While organic foods comprise less than 5 percent of the total food market in the UK, the organic corn meal products accounted for 60 percent of recalled corn meals.


What would the reaction have been among the organic farming/anti-biotech activist crowd if it were GM foods that had totally failed a serious food safety standard by such a huge margin, instead of organic products?


It would have been front-page news in all the UK newspapers. Organic activists and their fellow agitators in the environmental lobbies would have demanded an immediate recall of all biotech foods (not just those that were contaminated) and a complete halt to the growing of biotech crops until and unless these farming methods could be proven completely safe. Ironically, these groups have already made exactly such demands, despite a complete absence of food safety or environmental problems with GM crops and foods.


Even more ironic, GM insect resistant corn has been shown to have 30-40 fold lower fumonisin levels than conventional corn, let alone in comparison to the higher fumonisin levels found in organic corn. The difference in fumonisin levels between GM and organic corn would be enormous.


For years organic activists have claimed without evidence that "organic" methods were better for the environment and produced safer, healthier food. In fact, the Soil Association buried its own research from the 1960s that failed to show any nutrition or health superiority of organic, akin to the tobacco companies burying their own research linking smoking with lung cancer.


As long as organic comprised only a small share of the food system, it remained "under the radar" of food safety watchdogs. But now -- precisely because organic industry lies were not forcefully challenged -- organic is big enough business to deserve scrutiny. What we're increasingly finding is that not only aren't organic foods any better, they may be worse for our health.


Alex Avery is a plant physiologist and Director of Research at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues in Churchville, Virginia, USA.


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