WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2016 - Meta-analyses of existing research studies, published Tuesday in the British Journal of Nutrition, assert that switching to organic milk and meat “would go some way towards increasing our intake of nutritionally important fatty acids.” The 16 researchers behind the two reports, largely Europeans assembled by Newcastle University in England, claim to have found “clear differences between organic and conventional milk and meat” in their assessment of 196 papers on milk and 67 papers on meat.
These “groundbreaking” studies “show a clear health advantage to choosing organic milk and meat,” said the U.S.-based Organic Trade Association (OTA). But nutritionists and dairy and beef industry experts contacted by Agri-Pulse say the differences are meaningless to health.
“By far the most significant differences in the nutritional quality of both organic meat and milk are the much more favorable fatty acid profile,” says Chuck Benbrook, an Oregon-based agricultural economist who served as the only North American author on the papers. The reason is “much more reliance on forage-based feeds on organic livestock farms, coupled with much less reliance on corn and soybean-based grain supplements,” he told Agri-Pulse.
The authors say both organic milk and meat contain around 50 percent more omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products and that organic meat had slightly lower concentrations of two saturated fats that are linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
“Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function,” says Chris Seal, a Newcastle professor of food and human nutrition.
“Several of these differences stem from organic livestock production and are brought about by differences in production intensity, with outdoor-reared, grass-fed animals producing milk and meat that is consistently higher in desirable fatty acids such as the omega-3s, and lower in fatty acids that can promote heart disease and other chronic diseases,” says Newcastle’s Carlo Leifert, who, like Benbrook, is a member of the advisory board of the U.S.-based Organic Center.
U.S. dairy and beef experts who examined the Newcastle papers agree that any differences are likely due to whether cattle are fed on pasture or grain, but not whether they are raised organically. In emails to Agri-Pulse, they also sharply dispute the authors’ beliefs that consuming organic milk or meat could result in any significant advantages for human health.
Higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids are typical of pasture-fed cows, says Chris Galen, senior vice president of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). “This is not a function exclusive to organic methods of production; it’s the result of the forage the cows consume, and the effect would be the same for non-organic cows consuming grass while on pasture.”
But more important is whether higher fatty acids are biologically significant for humans, he adds. “The amounts are still so small that it’s not likely any health claims asserting a benefit could pass muster” because even higher-fat dairy products are not a major contributor of omega-6 or omega-3 fatty acids in the diets of Americans, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The same is true for meat, says Stephen Smith, regents professor and faculty fellow in animal science at Texas A&M. “The differences in n-3 fatty acids between organic and conventionally raised beef are virtually identical to differences seen between pasture-fed (non-organic) beef and conventional beef. So there is no benefit to the claim that organic per se is better than pasture-fed beef,” he said in an email relayed by the North American Meat Institute. “The total amounts are so low in beef and other meat animals as to be of no significance whatsoever.”
Shalene McNeill, executive director of human nutrition research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), makes a similar observation. “All meat typically contains only small amounts of these nutrients so increasing the normal amount 20 percent or even 50 percent will still result in a small amount when consumed,” she says.
McNeill finds it “difficult to determine with any degree of certainty the reason for the differences” found in the meat paper. “The authors combine data for different breeds of poultry, cattle, sheep and goats from across the EU,” she says. “The authors speculate that their observations may be attributable to increased grass feeding, but there is no data in this study to support a conclusion that the difference can be attributed to whether the grass was grown organically.”
Each paper’s acknowledgment opens its findings to questions of whether the studies were designed to produce a favorable result for organic meat and milk. The organic food industry has sought to justify claims of nutritional superiority since a seminal report by Stanford University researchers in 2012 concluded that, in their words, “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”
The Newcastle papers both cite support from the Soil Association’s Lord Peter Melchett, one of Britain’s earliest and best known champions of organic food, and disclose financial support from the Sheepdrove Trust, an activist purveyor of organic lamb. Its associated Sheepdrove Organic Farm cites on its web page a July 2014 study by many of the same authors claiming advantages for plant-based organic food.
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