Organic Produce: Just as Safe as Conventional Produce

Organic foods, food system connections and food safety’three hot issues that are motivating people to become more educated about food, from farm to fork. One aspect that touches on all three areas is the safe use of manure in organic agriculture. Concerns have been raised that organic foods may be more dangerous due to the use of manures. But before you cross organic foods off your shopping list, let’s dig into the facts on organic practices.

Laws of the Land. Composted manure is an important source of soil fertility for organic farmers; it’s a natural way to recycle nutrients that follows the patterns of Mother Nature. While both conventional and organic farms use manure for fertilization, only certified organic farms must follow strict regulations set forth by the U.S. National Organic Program (NOP). In order to ensure that organic crops are safe, the NOP requires that raw animal manure must be composted. The only instances when raw manure can be used are when crops are not intended for human consumption, or if it’s incorporated into the soil no less than 90 days before harvest (120 days for food crops that directly touch soil.) In addition, organic farms are not allowed to use sewage sludge, which comes from treated municipal waste water and other sources.

NOP also regulates how manure will be composted. Compost?plant and animal materials that are broken down to provide better nutrients and structure to the soil?must be processed to control a specified ratio of carbon to nitrogen and temperature range. These requirements are designed to encourage soil health, while minimizing risks to human health or the environment. Manure Contaminants? Not all manures carry E. coli, the bacteria sometimes linked with food borne illness, but some manure has been found to be a source of it. Composting manure reduces potentially harmful pathogens in several ways, including creating higher temperatures that reduce their numbers. That’s why NOP requires manures to be composted during critical stages of farming.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there is no evidence that organically grown foods are any less safe than conventionally grown, and composted manure is both a safe form of fertilizer and more efficient nutrient source for crops. Whether you choose organically or conventionally grown fresh produce, remember to follow careful handling practices. (See EN July, 2010, “Fresh Tips for Enjoying Safe Produce.”)

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