By Stephanie McGeary
Shoppers are usually willing to pay the extra price for organic foods, assuming that they are lessening their exposure to harmful pesticides. But consumers may be paying in more ways than one. By trusting that their food is chemical-free, people may be risking their health by unknowingly ingesting potentially dangerous chemicals. Even with the certified “USDA Organic” label, foods, including chia seeds can contain the dangerous herbicide paraquat.
Arcata resident and North Coast Food Co-op shopper, Karen Shepherd, always buys organic when possible. Shepherd, a 63-year-old child care provider, said that she doesn’t want to expose herself, or the children she takes care of, to pesticides. However, she does not necessarily believe that buying organic groceries is fool-proof.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that there would still be some pesticides in organic food. That’s why I grow a lot of my food myself. I know I can trust it,” Shepherd said. “But I still think organic is better than the alternative.”
So, what exactly does “organic” mean? According to the USDA website, organic labeling indicates that the product has been produced through approved methods which “integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.”
That all sounds pretty good. But there are a few exceptions to the USDA labeling standards that are not keeping labeled “organic” products in the clear. For one thing, to be labelled “organic” a product must only contain 95% organic ingredients. Only if a product is labelled as “100% Certified Organic” does it contain no non-organic products. Many consumers are unaware of this difference.
Another issue is that there are many synthetic pesticides allowed in organic crop production, according to the USDA standards. Whats even worse is that many dangerous synthetic substances, although not specifically allowed, can be acceptable if they are under the tolerances as set by the EPA.
Local chemist for North Coast Laboratories Bradley Thompson said that he believes certain chemicals, such as paraquat, aren’t being tested for at all. Some samples being brought to his lab, including water, soil and “organic” chia seeds, have been testing positive for the presence of paraquat.
“The frequency of paraquat has been increasing,” Thompson said. “Hits were rare and now it’s in every run. About two-thirds of my samples come up hot.”
One product that Thompson has tested in his laboratory is a popular brand of chia seeds, Nutiva. Stamped on the front of Nutiva’s bags is that trusted label “USDA Organic.” But in his testing, Thompson has been finding a presence of paraquat in the seeds.
Paraquat, or bipyridinium dichloride, is a toxic chemical which is often used as an herbicide to control weeds in farming. It is deadly to humans if ingested in large amounts and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure in small amounts can result in heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure and scarring of the lungs.
Thompson says he believes the chia manufacturers use paraquat to whither off the leaves of their plants in order to make the seeds easier to harvest.
“Of course, the manufacturers claim it doesn’t get in the seeds,” Thompson said. “They say they’ve got the studies to prove it. But obviously it’s not true.”
With all of these confusing standards and misleading labels, it can be difficult for a person who wants to eat organic to feel safe about what they are buying. In order to be sure about what you are getting, Thompson suggests buying local over simply buying organic.
“Go to the farmer’s market. Know your farmers,” said Thompson. “Or here’s a suggestion: grow your own food!”