The Cost of Eating Organic Food; or: Will E. Coli Increase Our Appetite for Irradiated Food?


We’ve been preparing a Freakonomics Radio piece on the hidden or overlooked costs of eating organic food. (Hint: living creatures that might be deterred by pesticides might not be deterred without pesticides.) In the meantime, a massive example has arisen in Europe, where the recent deadly E. coli outbreak has been traced to organic bean sprouts grown in northern Germany. In his Wall Street Journal column, Rational Optimist Matt Ridley makes a fervent argument that such an outbreak needn’t have happened:

A technology that might have prevented contaminated produce from infecting thousands of Germans with E. coli was vetoed—by Germany—11 years ago for use in the European Union. Irradiating food with high-voltage electrons is a process that can kill bacteria on or in solid objects, just as pasteurization can kill them in liquid foods.

When the European Commission proposed in 2000 that irradiation be allowed for a greater range of foods and at a higher dose, the German government vetoed the measure. In the U.S., food irradiation is used for various products, including ground beef, but most retailers resist the practice, lest the word “irradiated” on the label scare off customers.

In case you think the argument for irradiation is part of a vast right-wing conspiracy, consider this Huffington Post article by the A.P.’s Lauran Neergaard, titled “Is Irradiation The Future Of E. Coli Prevention?”

Mike B

It's a problem with vocabulary. You one steps out into sunlight you are being irradiated, but the general public assumes that irradiation makes something radioactive. The fix would be a new term to use for sterilizing something with particles that have no lasting effect on the target of said particles.

BTW while I am aware that not even one has the time or inclination to study up on these sorts of sciencey things making generalizations and linguistic shortcuts necessary, what are people using their brains and free time for instead?


LOL, the USA seems to irradiate more of its foods than Europe does, that pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

Everything about American agriculture and Monsanto, FDA et al. just STINKS.

And there IS a DIFFERENCE between organic and non-organic. Just try strawberries. You only need a tongue to tell whether it is the real thing or not.

Joshua Northey

Food insanity is the EU's climate change skepticism.

The stubborn refusal to accept the scientific evidence because it doesn't mesh with cherished political ideals. At one point my sister could not afford enough food for her, and her infant son, and yet refused to stop buying solely organic (expensive) food. She didn't want to "fill him up with chemicals".

I would send her articles about research pertaining to the issue, and she would just get angry. Not counterargument, just anger and stubbornness. This despite her being a perfectly intelligent person who has been healthy throughout a life where she ate non-organic food for decades.

Luckily she eventually got a good job, so her expensive habit is no longer an issue.

Mike B

Maybe if Europe spent more time working and less time eating they wouldn't be having a debt crisis right now.


Concentrated ionising irradiation at the levels currently used will certainly deal with ecoli but an overlooked fact is that hydrogen bonds that make up the amino acids in the foods are broken as a result.
This means that you are no longer able to assimilate correctly structured proteins and therefore will be unable to create correctly structured dna. Those are the blatent facts.

We evolved over millions of years consuming living foods. Technology and its applications over a century has reduced the populations to a seething mass of braindead cancer ridden weak hearted apathetic complainers who have no idea of the structured assault that is being played against them by way of UN agenda 21 & codex alimantairus.

Another method is required!


Just so you know why your comment has been voted down so much:

"hydrogen bonds ... are broken"
You're just about to digest this stuff. That is going to do much more damage to the proteins than breaking a few hydrogen bonds. For that matter, so will cooking it.
"This means that you are no longer able to assimilate correctly structured proteins and therefore will be unable to create correctly structured dna."
Sorry, this is pure nonsense. Your body does not reverse engineer proteins and construct DNA from them.

Valerie S

I think it was "Fast Food Nation" where an interviewee noted that irradiating meats and produce discourages producers from being careful with contaminants. Basically, he said that you end up with irradiated feces in the meat and produce - might not have E. Coli, but it's still irradiated feces.

For my own purchases, I go organic for the "Dirty Dozen" fruits & veggies but don't go bother for anything else.


That's certainly a risk, but the foods that are likely to be irradiated are also the foods which are already treated with the most care, from a public-health perspective; chicken, pork, ground-beef -- all of these are subject to (I believe) FDA inspection, and I would hope that when we finally realize irradiation is a good idea, we won't simply throw out existing inspections and safety protocols. Indeed, given the public's wariness about irradiation, there will presumably be significant pressure on processing facilities, farms, and so forth -- and these farms and processors will presumably be very hip to the PR risks they face if they were to get lax in their standards, just when the eyes of consumers are upon them. In other words -- I don't think we're going to end up with irradiated feces when we go to buy ground-beef.


Please don't assume that USDA inspections actually find anything. After decades of deregulatory zealots pushing policies (and food companies buying votes) in Washington, the USDA food inspection programs have been rendered ineffective and nearly meaningless. Government will to consistently enforce rules against large producers (and fund the enforcement thereof) has not existed in any large amount since the early 80's.


First, there seems to be an unstated assumption here that the E. coli outbreak was causally related to the fact that the bean sprouts were "organic". This seems dubious in light of the many E. coli cases deriving from non-organic foods.

Second, it seems that "organic" has become something of a religious doctrine, where things like irradiation (which is really no different in principle from cooking) are anathema, while the very real benefits of organic farming are mostly ignored. Those benefits range from the environmental/ecosystem level to the fact that it's about the only way to get decent-tasting varieties of some things any more. How long has it been since you've seen a good MacIntosh or Rome apple in conventional stores, or even good yellow sweet corn instead of that horrible tasteless white stuff?


That's largely my issue with "organic" products -- beyond the "oh, you know, it's natural!" vagaries, few consumers who seek such products out seem to have any idea what "organic" means. Heck, I know that it's been legally-defined, but I'm at a loss to give the specifics -- and I read "The Omnivore's Dillema", which was supposed to be about this whole issue. Basically, to the average consumer, "organic" *is* a religion -- and the priests are marketers who convince these consumers (again, without ever making light of the specifics) that "organic" is simply better. The irritating part is, we're at the point where you can now walk into a grocery store, and see two identical products -- produced by the same company -- in nearly-identical packages -- but with one labelled "organic", and the other lacking the label. The prices tend to be close, which means I'll usually give in and buy the organic -- and feel that dubious warm glow that I just somehow "did the right thing" -- but, did I? Does organic prohibit all pesticides? Are any of the pesticides that it prohibits a danger to humans? Is pesticide runoff a major problem, or does modern farm management eliminate this? Does organic farming have any ties to seemingly related "movements", like "free range"? (Actually, I recall this coming up in "Omnivore's Dillema" -- "free range" chickens were farmed in large barn-like structures, and while the chickens had *access* to a small "range" (a yard)...they vastly preferred to stay indoors. Hmm. I think I've lost my point here; I'll try to salvage it: is there a simple way to explain the practices employed in the production of organic food? And, is there significant evidence that these practices have a positive effect on humans and/or the natural environment?



Organic foods are just another scam to get more money for a product that has a higher labor cost.

Food irradiation is a great technology for lower costs and improving the safety of food, as well as increasing shelf life.

An interesting comparison (even though it involves neither organic or irradiation) is strawberries. I can enjoy the wonderful local strawberries for about two weeks a year. But ONLY if I drive out and get them direct from the farm and eat them the same day. By the next day they are in poor shape and the day after only good for jam.

Or I can pickup California strawberries at about half the price for about 30 weeks a year. Don't taste quit as good, but still a very nice product and very enjoyable. And they last at least two days in the fridge after I buy them.

Local is more or less the equivalent of what the Organic movement is about although locally they are still using pesticides etc (and in fact just this morning there was an article in the local paper about a local farmer "going organic").

And California is all about high tech. High tech growing, fast chilling within hours of picking, get it on the road to the consumer ASAP. And with modern strains of berries that do multiple crops per year which allows for amortization of the high tech chillers and packing machines.

All of which results in an overall better product at a much lower price which is available to far more people for more of the year. Which is why it drives the Localvoire / Organic nuts mad with envy.



I don't believe it drives me mad - certainly not with envy, since that is not the emotion I experience. My reaction is simply resignation: I don't buy the horrible apples, sweet corn, or whatever. Of course it varies with the product: strawberries aren't (yet) so bad as to be inedible, but in general it's a lose-lose situation: the apple & corn growers lose sales, I resign myself to only eating apples & corn from my own trees & garden.


Irradiated poop is still poop.


Just to complete the picture:
Forensic evidence emerges that European e.coli superbug was bioengineered to produce human fatalities.
Learn more at NaturalNews
Who knows if this is true? We are just guessing here what happened :(