Local, Organic and Food Safety – Must you sacrifice one for the other?

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The article below has been getting a lot of press the last few weeks. I became aware of the study early on for a few reasons – 1. I’m a Penn State alumna from the College of Ag; 2. The advisor to the study is a close colleague of mine and 3. This is my industry – something I’m proud of and, sometimes, all too close to.
This is not the first comparison performed in this venue – we can all site various organic versus non-organic studies completed in an attempt to prove or disprove various points of view.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this study was well conducted and is completely neutral in what the results would show. I do not believe for a minute the either Joshua Scheinberg or Dr. Cathy Cutter had any hopes that this study would show anything more than the facts of bacteria presence on various markets of poultry.

Unfortunately what the industry will do with the study will be huge and very biased. It has already started. The link below is to Feedstuffs, who has offered no opinion, nor would I expect it to, but simply offers the information for you to decide. Large companies, who offer large scale, affordable products for the great masses (and are instrumental to feeding this country and the world) are using the information to tout that their products are safer and that you are putting your family at risk by shopping at farmers markets, buying chicken from small farms who process themselves and simply don’t know how to “do it safely”.

I challenge that this position is not true. Let’s look at the numbers themselves. The study declares that farmers market birds tested 28% for salmonella; organic birds at the grocer testing 28% and non-organic tested at just 8%. To an uninformed public this will be enough to have them shun local meat and stick with what appears to be safest. To the diehard, local at all costs this will have no affect whatsoever – perhaps to their detriment.
To the other 80% who simply want to do what’s best for the environment, best for their family and, quite frankly, has little time to sort out what it means either way, they may be swayed away from something that is much less risky than these numbers would indicate. One viable argument is that while the salmonella on conventional poultry is lower, the organisms are much stronger and much more deadly – given their ability to survive the antibiotic treatments they have been exposed to. What if the reason the farmers market birds are higher is because they have been temperature abused, causing rapid growth of the organism? That means more issues with those birds than just pathogens.

The bottom line – as has always been the bottom line regardless of how many studies are done – is that it is the consumers responsibility to evaluate their supplier and make an educated choice. If you are buying from the farmer down the street, recognize the pros and cons of this decision and handle yourself accordingly. When buying from the farmers market – take a cooler to refrigerate your purchases, wash them well when you get them home and use them within a few days of purchase. These birds are not going to be as hardy as store bought birds because they do not have the residual antimicrobial agent a conventionally processed bird will. Your local farmer also doesn’t have the chilling capability a large manufacturer does. This makes neither of them better or worse – simply different.

As is always the case – education is key to the best decision for your situation.

Penn State Chicken Survey