Safety of organics prompts fierce debate on Producer’s website

Canada’s food safety system was a popular topic on Western Producer social media channels this past week, thanks largely to the refreshingly candid comments of a University of Saskatchewan professor interviewed by WP reporter Dan Yates.

In conjunction with World Health Day, the WHO released a study ­— From farm to plate, make food safe — which found 582 million cases of food-borne illnesses in 2010, resulting in 351,000 deaths.

That’s how Yates came to be interviewing Stuart Smyth, a U of S professor of bioresource policy, business and economics.

“Thousands of cases a year of food illness are triggered from organic products,” Smyth said.

“It’s largely due to the process of them using manure slurry as fertilizer and coming down to improper household food preparations in terms of making sure that they’re properly washing organic food.”

And with that, the WP’s social media channels were abuzz.

“We need this article put in major cities where the majority of Canadian consumers are. This is an excellent article,” said WP reader Neil.

A reader named Dayton replied, “Excellent based on what? One man’s theory?”

Smyth’s comment was challenged by Rob Wallbridge, an organic farmer and respected social media commentator from Bristol, Que.: “Mr. Smyth, please cite the science-based evidence to back your claims about organic food safety in comparison to non-organic products. When you fail to do so, and I say ‘when’ because every single person I’ve asked to do this for the past decade has failed, please retract your statements and issue an apology to the thousands of certified organic farmers in Canada who work side-by-side every day with every other Canadian farmer to produce healthy, safe food.”

Shortly thereafter, Smyth himself responded to Wallbridge’s comment, something those of us here at the WP have rarely seen: “Mr. Wallbridge, will a report from the World Health Organization suffice? In 2011, organic cucumbers containing a lethal level of E. coli were sold in Europe, resulting in over 4,000 cases of illness and 50 deaths. Colleagues of mine at the FAO reported that by the third day of the story, the powerful European organic industry had pressured the media into removing the word organic from all stories. Sadly, removing the word organic contributed to thousands of additional cases of illness and death, as European consumers had no idea it was the organic food that was killing them.

“I stand by my claim: organic food is the most dangerous and unsafe food on the market today. If you want to eat food that will kill you, eat organic.”

The story also triggered a number of comments on the WP’s Face book page, among them someone using the nickname The Nutrition Sleuth: “This article is entirely false and Dr. Smyth is quoted out of context. The WHO said absolutely zero about organic farming in their report, which hasn’t even been released yet.”

The debate on this issue is ongoing, but getting researchers such as Smyth conversing with producers such as Wallbridge, disagreeing though they may, is surely a positive step.

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