How Safe Is 'Clean' Food?

While consumers may be demanding it, food scientists warn of increased risks for foodborne pathogens.

By Carolyn Schierhorn, Contributing Editor

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Many people who seek out “clean food” prefer organically grown produce in large part because they believe it is free of synthetic pesticide residue. But in the absence of applied pesticides, “plants produce natural toxins to defend themselves against various stressors out in the field, whether insects or microbiological pathogens,” Kaminski says. Some of these toxic compounds can be “very mutagenic,” he emphasizes.

Washing conventionally grown produce before consuming it will remove pesticide residue, according to Kaminski. “But those mutagenic compounds that organically grown vegetables are making — you can’t wash those out,” he maintains.

No definitive, comprehensive study has been published indicating that organic food is more likely than non-organic food to correlate with foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not systematically collect information on conventional versus organic production methods through its National Outbreak Reporting System, which depends on state and local health departments to report foodborne illness outbreaks.

And because “clean label,” unlike “organic,” has not been defined by USDA or the FDA, it would be much more difficult to conduct a comprehensive research study on whether clean label formulations and production methods have a higher relative risk for foodborne illness than their conventional counterparts.

One study that has attracted the notice of food scientists and microbiologists, though, indicates a positive, statistically significant correlation between the number of farmers’ markets per million individuals and the number per million of total outbreaks and cases of foodborne illness. Published in the "American Journal of Agricultural Economics" in April 2018, the article Farmers Markets and Food-Borne Illness compares data on farmers’ markets by state from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and Farmers Markets Directory for the years 2004, 2006 and 2008-2013 with data from the CDC’s Foodborne Outbreak Online Database (FOOD) for the same years.

“The correlation between farmers’ markets and foodborne illness just persisted in whatever I did with the data,” says the study’s lead author Marc Bellemare, an associate professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota. The correlation is most robust between farmers’ markets and outbreaks and cases of norovirus, followed by Campylobacter jejuni.

Receiving his research grant from University of Minnesota’s Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute (www.hfhl.umn.edu), Bellemare initially aimed to investigate the accuracy of a common assumption that consumers make today “that local organic food is healthier.” Although farmers’ markets don’t just sell organic food, “I used that measure because I couldn’t find a good measure of organic consumption,” Bellemare explains.

While not adding to research on the safety of organic foods, Bellemare’s study does call into question consumers’ health assumptions about the “farm-to-table” trend, another aspect of the broader clean label movement.

No discussion of this movement can fail to take note of the growing consumer concern over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Many consumers now expect clean label food to be GMO-free.

In a May 2016 report “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine confirmed (again) that “the study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between currently commercialized genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops.”

Although there is no evidence that non-GMO crops are more likely to harbor foodborne pathogens, Wayne Parrott, a professor of crop science at the University of Georgia, has commented to the media on the detrimental removal of vitamins from certain breakfast cereals reformulated to be Non-GMO Project Verified.

Difficult to disabuse

In "The Food Police," a hard-hitting critique of those who attack “Big Food” without any knowledge of agribusiness or food science, Lusk wrote, “The progressive food movement will not meaningfully help the poor or the environment or public health: It is a way for a modern generation far removed from the farm to give meaning to their lives in how they define themselves and others through food.”

Because so many millennial and younger adult consumers today link their food choices with their moral values, not just long-term health, the food industry faces an uphill battle when it comes to convincing people that conventional food additives such as synthetic preservatives, as well as biotechnological innovations, help ensure better-for-you and safer food.

Bellemare, who wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times about his farmers’ market research, points out that while he received favorable feedback from many readers, a few were “pretty virulent in their denunciation of what I had written as being complete garbage,” as he puts it.

“We live in an era where the worst thing that can happen to an individual is to get told that what you believe is fundamentally mistaken,” Bellemare explains. “It is in the spirit of the times that people don’t like to get told they are wrong about something. They are very ego-invested in what they believe.”

Nevertheless, some food scientists and other food safety experts are trying to educate the public and take on “chemophobic” activists, as Lusk calls them. In January 2015, for example, several members of the Institute of Food Technologists Student Assn. wrote “An Open Letter to the Food Babe,” in which they called out her oversimplification of science.

“You have claimed to appreciate the work of food and nutritional scientists, but the language in your posts is insulting and attacks our profession — without really understanding what we do," they wrote. "In a time when sound science is needed more than ever, why do you so openly choose to ignore and vilify it?”

In his second book for the lay public, "Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology Are Serving Up Super Foods to Save the World," Lusk extols the benefits of biotechnological innovation and directly addresses foodborne illness, which afflicts more than 15 percent of Americans each year, resulting in 3,000 deaths and 128,000 hospitalizations, according to the CDC. “The modern-day quest for naturalness in food sometimes runs directly at odds with food safety,” he wrote.

Besides educating consumers, the food industry needs to understand the importance of corporate social responsibility in gaining the trust of millennials and Generation Z, Petitpain emphasizes. “A company’s reputation is reflected all the way down into minuscule details of a particular product,” she says.

So, for example, if consumers admire a food manufacturer’s fair trade and hiring policies, they might be more inclined to believe that its product ingredients are safe and healthful.

As Petitpain explains, “This movement is an opportunity for companies to look holistically at their corporate responsibility plans and examine how effectively they’re communicating their values and their vision of transparency.”

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