Just like millions of other US consumers, I compare food prices at the supermarket much more today than I did five years ago. As a result, my family is opting to purchase more store brands and generally, we pass on organic and natural products simply because they are more expensive than conventional foods.
Over the past several decades, I’ve heard that an increasing number of consumers are perceiving organic and natural foods as being superior to conventional foods from both a nutritional and food-safety standpoint. But are they?

I can clearly remember the packer furor back around 1990 when a leading natural meats processor began touting its natural meat as being better than conventional meat — which many in the industry felt also implied that natural meat was safer, too. This debate easily spills over into organic products since even stricter rules and regulations govern the production of organic products vs. natural products. This was a hot topic of debate for several years at industry meetings and conventions — both in meeting rooms and in the hallways. Consumers would think any meat or poultry that was not natural or organic was not safe, many in the industry complained about the concept of marketing that food safety was better regarding natural vs. conventional meat.

Now more than 20 years later, a recent round of research is stirring this pot up again — but this time around research states there is generally no difference in nutritional value or risk for bacterial contamination between organic and conventional foods, according to a new study being published in Annals of Internal Medicine, the flagship journal of the American College of Physicians (ACP).

Although consuming organic fruits and vegetables reduced exposure to any detectable pesticide residues by 30 percent, pesticide levels [in conventional products] were generally within the allowable limits for safety, the study points out.

A news release on this study explained that researchers conducted a systematic review of 17 human studies and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in unprocessed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, eggs, chicken, pork and meat to compare the health, nutritional and safety characteristics of organic and conventional foods. Bottom line — the researchers determined the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.

"Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious," iterated Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD MS, a VA Physician Fellow at CHP/PCOR, and lead author of the paper. "My colleagues and I were a little surprised that we didn't find that."

Researchers found weak evidence of the nutritional superiority of organic foods in that organic produce contained significantly higher levels of total phenols, a compound that may have antioxidant properties, and that organic milk and chicken contained significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, the study revealed. But since few people have phosphorous deficiency, the finding has little clinical significance, they concluded.

Regardless, organic food sales have increased dramatically in the US between 1997 and 2010—increasing from $3.6 billion to more than $26 billion annually. Prices will vary, but consumers may pay up to twice as much for organic foods vs. conventional, which makes many organic foods off-limits for my family and likely millions of others.

In order to be certified "organic," produce must be grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic livestock are fed organically produced feed and can roam outdoors. What’s more, organic regulations typically require that organic foods are processed without irradiation or chemical food additives and are not grown from genetically modified organisms.

When it comes to food safety, industry continues to work hard to maintain and improve producing even safer meat and poultry. But like it or not, I believe someday various meat and poultry products will begin to be marketed as safer products, either directly or implied, due to the interventions, testing and other technologies they employ throughout their processes.

During a recent conversation I had with the president and CEO of a leading rapid test manufacturer, he said, “I see [rapid tests] as a huge marketing tool. If you test more than your competitors, why would a consumer or retailer not buy from you?” The same could be said for using a technology, such as high pressure processing, or antimicrobial ingredients — and this list could go on and on.

No doubt, consumers throughout the world are demanding safer food. And if they perceive one brand of beef or pork, for example, to be safer than others, many may likely buy that brand unless the price is too steep. But I think the real question at this stage of the game is no longer “Will food safety marketing begin in the meat and poultry industry”.....but rather “when will it begin in earnest?”