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The "Ick" in Organic: Fox and Factory Farms Fight Back!

Sweetbreads recently sent me this article/video titled "The 'Ick' Factor and the Myth of 'All-Natural'". Give it a quick watch. At a minimum it's good monday morning entertainment.
 
 
The article and video really reinforced the great responsibility that we are assuming by committing to produce food. It reminded me how important it is for new farmers to make sure that we produce at the highest standards of quality and cleanliness. Especially for those of us that are (or will be) in the business of producing alternative food products. There’s already the hurdle of trying to sell something that’s not mainstream, so why add any more fuel to fire? 
 
First, a few things that I appreciate about the video. 1.) Someone willing to take the other side of the argument. It’s critical to have a “devil’s advocate” out there pushing you to do better and criticize your own practices in the pursuit of achieving the best methods possible. 2.) It’s good to ground ourselves back in reality and realize that many people in the world can still benefit from understanding more about our food system and why it’s ok for vegetables to be "grown in the ground" without pesticides and for chickens to eat worms and be outside in the pasture, among other things.

The article and video make a number of claims that I’d like to comment on briefly. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive research report, just an amalgamation of some thoughts and some helpful references for those that are interested.

1.) Agave nectar contains more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Based on the research I’ve done this appears to be true. Agave “nectar” production typically results in fructose content higher than HFCS. Agave nectar ranges from 56-92% fructose vs. HFCS at 42-55% fructose. There is some debate about agave, its different methods of production, and its impact on blood sugar levels, which may be lower than HFCS, but it is reasonably safe to say that the claim of agave nectar containing more fructose than HFCS is true. Natural substitutes for agave nectar and HFCS include raw honey, stevia leaves and fresh fruit, but we are not advocates of consuming a disproportionate amount of any sugar, so substitutes should be used in moderation. Sticking to natural and unprocessed sugars is probably a safer bet than agave nectar or HFCS, but I’ll leave that up to you to research.
 
A great article on HFCS and agave nectar can be found on the Weston A Price site: Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought.

2.) You’re more likely to get bacterial contamination from consuming raw milk.
In the industrialized food system that is most likely true. Raw milk, when produced, stored and/or delivered in an inappropriate manner can be quite harmful. In lieu of abandoning raw milk altogether, consumers should visit farms where they are purchasing raw milk and confirm that the farmer is producing raw milk by taking the proper safety precautions into consideration. We view this as a deep responsibility to produce raw milk at a higher standard and prove that raw milk can be healthy and safe alternative. Raw milk really is a fantastic food and it’s a shame that certain producers give it a bad name. We are advocates for raw milk, but we are also weary of those trying to take advantage of the higher price and not producing at equally high standards. It’s unfortunate that it boils down to the consumer needing to take responsibility for knowing where their food/milk comes from, but that’s the reality today.

3.) Reusable bags can be an unhealthy source of heavy metals and bacterial contamination.
Lead and other heavy metals have been found in reusable bags, especially those produced abroad (primarily Asia). Consumers should be aware of this and only purchase and use reusable bags from manufacturers that do not use heavy metals in the construction of their bags. Most US and Canadian manufacturers should be safe since they have to comply with EPA and other regulatory standards. Certainly no reason to revert back to the one-time usage of wasteful plastic bags.

Bacterial contamination is also easily avoided. If you buy an item such as raw chicken or other raw foods that may contaminate the bag simply wash the bag at home and don’t use it to transport other foodstuffs before you wash it. Use a cloth or canvas bag and wash it thoroughly. If you’re too lazy for that then use plastic bags for the raw meat and reusable bags for everything else. I’m not recommending that approach, just being realistic. At least you’d be cutting down on bag consumption for other items.

4.) "An egg laid out in the middle of a pasture — at least a chicken that’s pecking on worms and all that —it turns out the studies suggest over and over again [that] those are going to have a higher quantity of bacteria in them."
It’s interesting that the comment says “eggs laid out in the middle of a pasture”. I’m not yet a pastured egg farmer, but my understanding is that a chicken would not want to lay an egg in the middle of the pasture because the middle of a pasture is usually not well protected and protecting that egg until it hatched would put the chicken under undue environmental stress (weather, predators, etc). Not to mention that no farmer in their right mind would ever wander around a pasture looking for random eggs everywhere, probably stepping on more than they picked up! Can you imagine? :) But I digress.
 
I presume the fellow in the video is referring to pastured eggs laid in nest boxes that come back with dirt or feces dried on the outside. I searched and searched for his sources, but could find nothing. I've emailed Consumer Freedom to see if they can help. Obviously, eggs should be collected on a daily basis, dirt/feces removed from the shell, and then the eggs should be stored under the proper conditions. Again, the farmer's responsibility.
 
Pastured hens normally lay eggs in their nest boxes, which should be cleaned and re-bedded on a regular basis. If this isn’t done, I could see how someone could come to the conclusion that factory farmed eggs that never have the chance to rest beneath a chicken (due to the sloped or slatted battery cage floors) could be more sanitary than a pastured egg. Again, it’s our duty as farmers to make sure we keep up with the cleanliness of our operations and exceed all standards and expectations of regulators and consumers.
 
Then comes the claim that “a chicken that’s pecking on worms and all that” would also contribute to a higher risk of bacterial contamination.

Firstly, earthworms are a fantastic source of nutrition. They are very high in protein, amino acids and trace minerals. In fact, they’re “capable of satisfying a significant fraction of [humans] daily requirements for essential amino acids and many of the trace metals, especially calcium and iron.” It's no coincidence that earthworms are completely missing from conventional, highly fertilized fields and are in amazing abundance in organic fields. They eat the same vitamins and minerals that we're after, only they know to avoid the fake stuff! I find it a stretch to believe that such a nutritious delicacy as an earthworm could be digested and turned into a bacterial infestation inside an egg, but I couldn’t find the Consumer Freedom article’s source for it’s claim so I can’t abjectly refuse it. 

Secondly, what should chickens be eating? GM corn and soy (which contribute to deforestationoften result in monocropping, and have an undetermined impact on human health)? Massive doses of antibiotics? Arsenic-laced feed? At least one of the Arsenic-laced chicken feed ingredients was pulled a month ago, but another still remains. Who knows what else in there or what will be added in the future?
 
What happens to all that chicken waste? Fed right back to the feedlot cattle. Double dose.
 
Are we really so far removed from reality that a chicken eating worms is really more of a threat than our current industrialized egg production process?
 
Maybe we should take a step back and ask ourselves what looks more sanitary? Pastured egg production or factory egg production? I imagine the “smell” test would lead to a similar conclusion.
 
5.) A study that came out of the UK’s version of the EPA said there’s absolutely no nutritional difference between organics and conventional.”
The nutritional difference between organic and conventional has long been debated. Many studies have proven it both ways, so I won't belabor the topic here, that's what Google's for.
 
I will comment on a few things, however. “Nutrient content” doesn’t take into account the harmful effects of pesticides and herbicides used in conventional production. Since the nutritional studies typically ignore the impact of pesticides I don’t think we can draw a clear conclusion on what's healthier. The studies also don’t take into account anything that humans can’t measure. Are we really so naive to believe that we can measure and account for everything? Are we so arrogant to think that something produced organically and naturally by nature can be replicated through the addition of man-made fertilizers and be equally as healthy for our bodies? We know a lot more now that we did 100 yrs ago and I imagine that will also be the case 100 yrs from now. Hopefully mankind makes it long enough to realize that nature got it right the first time.
 
A few things are certain: 1.) Conventional foods are almost always grown using pesticides and herbicides, 2.) Many conventional food practices deplete the soil and are generally bad for the environment (monocropping, soil erosion, higher energy dependence, etc). 3.) We don’t know what we don’t know about organic or conventional farming. You choose which unknown circle to put your marbles into.

And all the untreated, unsterilized manure used to grow that health-haloed produce is “the ‘ick’ in organic.

I get this claim. Telling someone that animal manure was used to fertilize their produce could almost surely send them running and screaming and that’s exactly the purpose of stories like this. Interestingly, it's well documented that conventional farmers use manure as well. Raw manure should be composted, cured and aged appropriately before spreading onto crops. If it’s not, then yeah, it’s potentially gross and harmful, especially if applied in excess or during harvest.

Again, this is the responsibility of the farmer to use manure appropriately and not give people (such as those at Consumer Freedom) the opportunity to claim that using manure is a bad thing.

To sum it all up I just want to reiterate how important it is for new farmers like us to learn and abide by all the laws of nature, common sense and the various regulatory bodies. It’s a great responsibility to produce your own food and food for others and we welcome it with open arms.
 

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