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Organic Study Continues to Make Waves with Local Producers

Grace Hood

A September 4 Stanford study analyzing the nutritional benefits of organic food continues to draw ire from Colorado’s organic food industry.

KUNC reported last week on reaction from Boulder Valley’s robust organic food industry, which ranged from disbelief to strong questions.

Published in Annals of Internal Medicine, the meta-analysis generated headlines with the finding that there were no nutritional differences between conventional and organic foods. Some initial media reports followed the Stanford press release that downplayed the health benefits of organic foods.

Those conclusions generated some discussion among Windsor Dairy clients, according to owners Meg Cattell and Arden Nelson. The husband-and-wife veterinarians Cattell and Nelson have spent more than a decade operating the organic dairy, which offers raw milk to shareowners and other products like grass-fed beef and raw cheese.

Credit Grace Hood
A worker manages the milking parlor at Windsor Dairy.

Interestingly enough, Cattell and Nelson say the study hasn’t prompted any direct questioning from their roughly 500 shareowners or new prospective customers.

Cattell wonders who is most troubled by the study.

“I saw some farmers on our online discussion group say ‘I think the farmers are a lot more upset about this than the consumers. [Consumers] basically ignored it because they’ve already reached their conclusions,’” she says.

Nevertheless, Cattell and Nelson—who have an entire Learning Center on their web site devoted to scientific organic food studies—aren’t content to let the details of the Stanford study be debated inside online chat rooms.

Nelson wrote a 10-page paper devoted to the topic, which starts out by saying:

I believe that the Stanford researchers presented only a portion of the conclusions to the press from their poorly performed meta-analysis paper.

Nelson’s critique—like that of many others—looks at facts under emphasized in the study (like organic food having higher levels of Phosphorus), media coverage on the topic (including early reports by NPR) and fuzzy math (a statistical construct used in the paper called the “risk difference”).

Risk difference is also something that drew the attention of researcher Chuck Benbrook at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University. Benbrook has written a detailed explanation of it and other issues here [.pdf].

While some have spent time crafting a detailed analysis, at least one citizen group has taken to a petition drive. According to the LA Times, a group is circulating a petition to have the study retracted on change.org.

One of the Stanford researchers, Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler, did discuss the limitations of the study in a conversation with the public policy web site Remapping Debate. The web post concludes:

In the face of the various elements of health and safety not addressed by the study, Smith-Spangler still insisted that her team’s findings were intended to provide the evidence on which consumers could base their decisions. “Our goal was to present the evidence and try to help people understand the evidence,” Smith-Spangler said. “But our goal was not to tell people what or what not to do.”

For their part, Windsor Dairy owners Meg Cattell and Arden Nelson say some of the most convincing evidence they’ve come across doesn’t come from the annals of academia. It’s the individual health success stories they’ve seen their foods have with clients. Cattell says those effects are particularly noticeable when it comes to kids.

“Doctors say this is the smallest file in my office. The PE teacher says these kids are super athletes and they’re just healthy like farm kids have always been,” she says. “Now that’s become abnormal, and we don’t want that to be the case.”

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