Going Organic – The Dirty Dozen Foods

Non-organic methods of farming are a recent invention – for millennia, humans have been farming and producing crops using natural pesticides and fertilisers, and have not traditionally given antibiotics to cattle. However, in the drive to increase yields and maximise profits, as well as to avoid famines, non-organic methods have become the norm.  Organic foods cost more than non-organic foods – it is a simple equation that organic farms have lower yields than non-organic farms and higher labour costs, so have to sell at a higher price. In our recent tough times paying over the odds is particularly difficult to stomach (puns always intended!).  While there is little scientific evidence to support the nutritional benefits of only eating organic foods (2010 review study), I think it is just common sense that we should try to avoid exposure to various chemicals which aren’t strictly necessary. This is why the USA Environmental Working Group’s annual list of dirty dozen foods is rather important (as well as their two extra “plus” foods which are nearly at the level for inclusion). You can therefore hedge your bets a bit if your budget allows a little leeway.

Foods on the Dirty Dozen list

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Cherry Tomatoes
  4. Cucumbers
  5. Grapes
  6. Hot Peppers
  7. Nectarines (imported)
  8. Peaches
  9. Potatoes
  10. Spinach
  11. Strawberries
  12. Red peppers (bell peppers)

and on the plus list:

  1. Kale/Collard Greens
  2. Courgettes

However, this is a list on foods for sale in the USA and should be taken with caution by those in the UK (like I am). Since the UK imports 95% of its organic foods, mostly from Europe (BBC news article from 2010), this is still therefore relevant to the debate, as you then get into the carbon footprint issues of food miles. Organic foods are not necessarily local after all.  If you’re more concerned with your own personal intake of chemicals and less about the environmental impact of transportation, then this list can be argued to be relevant still due to the likelihood that the major pests these particular crops are susceptible to are quite universal, especially when taking into account that some of these foods have skins which tend towards absorbing the chemicals more readily.

What particularly shocked me about the UK rules for organic produce is that they’re so vague – there is no guarantee that only organic methods have been used at all. Until as recently as 2011, chicken feed was allowed to include some (5%) non-organic feed, which had been reduced from a higher number of 20% in previous years (same BBC news article as above). Antibiotics are still allowed to be used when an animal is ill – although I couldn’t find information about how that ill animal would be treated after they’d had their antibiotics on the Soil Association Website (Would they be segregated from the rest to prevent spread of infection? If they are a dairy cow, would they still be milked? If so, how would that milk be treated/labelled? If they were shortly to be slaughtered, would they be kept to the side and labelled as non-organic? Or would they keep their organic label?).  There is also a list of allowed non-organic items which can make up 5% of a supposedly organic product – is it just me, or does that sound like a cop out?

I have only recently started buying some organic fruit and veg – mostly due to finding out about the Dirty Dozen List last year. However, with meat I have always tended to go more for the food miles and free range issues – although I’m now considering going organic with them as well, but won’t until I hear either some stronger evidence supporting organic food, or some stronger rules ensuring organic actually means organic.

Further research:

  1. The Organic Food Shopper’s Guide (Amazon.co.uk link; Amazon.com link)
  2. The Organic Cook’s Bible (Amazon.co.uk linkAmazon.com link)



Opinion: Horse Meat and Statistics

Princess Anne this week revived the horse meat scandal with her comments regarding whether horse owners would look after their horses more carefully if they could sell them for human consumption at the end of their lives.  The BBC commentary on it was one of the more considered pieces, which didn’t really blow it out of proportion as she does quite clearly state that she wanted the debate to be had not that she was definitely for it.  The horse meat scandal earlier on in the year took up a lot of time on BBC Radio 4 on my drive to and from work everyday and I kept hearing arguments for eating horse meat based on the idea that it is a perfectly normal thing on the continent.   I go to France at least once a year to stay with friends who have their own horses and it seems vaguely disloyal to contemplate eating one when there were four visible from the dining room and kitchen.  Especially when I’ve gone out and fed them the dry ends of the baguettes which they are so keen on…  

I’ve seen plenty of horse meat in the supermarket, so I had unquestioningly accepted this assumption about the frequency of horse meat consumption.  However, when seeing this graph on horse meat consumption, unexplained, in the article link above, there appears to be very little evidence to support any assertion that horse meat is a common behaviour.

_65855175_horsemeat_consumption304Image source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24952823 

Do you see the problem with this graph?

What this graph shows is that people in Belgium on average have approx 1.1kg per year of horse meat.  Given an average portion size of 150-200g, this is about 6-7 portions per year, or once every two months.  Belgians eat approx 30.4kg of meat in total per year, so 1.1kg being horse meat is a small proportion – certainly not making them prolific horse-meat eaters, or even prolific meat-eaters!  When teaching statistics to my students I always teach them that one number on its own is not helpful – generally you need several in order to get a proper picture of whatever activity is being investigated.   Further you need to convert the units into actual real-life units in order to give a even clearer picture.  What 30.4kg breaks down to is 202 days out of 365 days getting a single 150g portion of meat in that day, which is just over half the year.  Obviously there is a slight fallacy here as there will be a number of people not eating meat at all (vegetarians!) who will be bringing down the average for the whole country, and of course these numbers don’t give us the range or standard deviation in order to see if there are some avid meat consumers eating, say 400g per day, but still…

I think we need a campaign to teach people better statistics.  I’m not convinced that the people who are arguing for the consumption of horse meat as it is a common behaviour have actually looked at these stats – and if they have, they certainly haven’t been able to translate them into human behaviours.  Either way, I’m still not convinced that eating horse meat is necessarily a good thing – why don’t people focus on the benefits of horse meat over other types instead of going for the “other people do it so we should too” type of argument, which I think I’ve demonstrated is not as strong an argument as they might assume.