Imagine this: You walk into a stylish restaurant for a Valentine’s Day dinner with your significant other. You open the menu and you see that the Chicken parmesan is made with certified organic chicken. This means that usually it is both more expensive and healthier, right? But then you remember that several food poisoning outbreaks in recent years have been attributed to organically grown crops, that organic certification is often easy to fake and that even if it is real it is easy to mislabel it much like in the current horse meat scandal blasting through Europe. So you basically pay extra and might get nothing for it, or even get sick.
Of course that kind of reasoning is deeply flawed. While there is no arguing that the problems of the organic industry have been well documented and are slow to be addressed we should be careful in drawing parallels between the abovementioned slips and the entire industry, not only because it minimizes and can virtually destroy the generally small organic food producers but also because all the buzzwords thrown around organic foods matter.
‘Organic’ food is supposed to be grown like in the good old days of our grandparents, with no fertilizers, no pesticides and with animals only fed biologically appropriate diets. The higher prices associated with organic produce are generally due to both reduced yields (no pesticides, no modern fertilizer) and lower acreage. While small traditional farmers and private growers do suffer from these problems in the US organic agriculture has become big business in Europe, negating the second cause of the high prices and is expanding in the US as well. This has increased the visibility and reach of any food scare as the produce from a certain farm or lot that might be contaminated tends to reach further, turning what used to be a small problem into a national or even international issue.
Yet this increase in acreage doesn’t mean that producers are abandoning their old methods of farming. They aren’t cheating. Mass produced organic food is equal for the most part to that produced by the local co-op in terms of farming methods. Quite the opposite, standardised mass farming tends to produce less cases of contaminated food for instance due to better organic soil enrichment measures than just a manure cart. The downside is that when a slip-up does occur it is very visible and very widespread as in the case of the European E-Coli outbreak.
Poultry and meat products that are certified organic, free range and so on are even harder to doctor as Food Inspectors regularly check the livestock and there are increasingly stricter regulations on animal products, especially in Europe. You can trust a steak bought from Mile High Steaks for instance, marketed as coming from a grass fed cow because you know that that carcass must have been inspected over and over both for hormone levels and for its diet. You can sometimes tell by taste if the beef had been organically raised or not due to lower fat content. It’s easier with chicken. A massive fist-sized drumstick is unlikely to have come from a hormone free chicken.
Buzzwords are more than buzzwords when it comes to organic agriculture and the increased price you pay isn’t a ‘fool tax’. It is more of a health insurance of sorts. Odds are that you won’t be a lot healthier if you eat organic greens rather than mass farmed ones but if you can afford the price why risk it?