The more aphids, the higher the quality?
June 3, 2011 8:29 AM   Subscribe

Does buying produce labeled organic mean I am also down for buying food that is covered in dirt and bugs?

For some reason, I feel rather stupid for asking this question but it's bothered me long enough that I figured I'd ask. Recently, I picked up some organic chard from my local big grocery and there were literally clods of dirt in the leaves. I've had this happen with lettuce, too. Now, dirt is dirt but I'm not sure why the non-organic lettuce wouldn't also have clods of dirt. Both are grown in dirt -- what are they doing to the non-organic that has them less dirty?

Also, I've brought home organic lettuce that looked good in the store but turns out to be filled with aphids and bugs. So, you know, bugs are out there and I'm (hopefully) avoiding pesticides by choosing organic but it's annoying to have to de-bug my lettuce and, sometimes, if there's a lot of bugs I admit that I just toss it out. Because I don't really want to eat bugs.

Now, some of the other more high-end stores that offer organic don't seem to have as much of a dirt/bug problem as my large grocery chain store. So, what's going on here? Large grocery chain offering organic at better prices by cutting out some kind of produce-washing middleman? Or do they just think that as a customer looking for organic, I won't believe it unless it comes with caterpillars and half the farm?

Or, go ahead, the third option? I'm a lily-livered urban yuppie who should just get over herself and embrace the buggy, organic future.
posted by amanda to Food & Drink (21 answers total)
Maybe the organic produce was rinsed before it got to you.
posted by dfriedman at 8:30 AM on June 3, 2011

There's no reason for organic farmers to rinse their produce since they ostensibly haven't sprayed it with anything objectionable while it was growing. So it gets to you with dirt on it, and you rinse it just like you rinse all your produce at home.

I can't speak to the bugs, never had a problem with it.
posted by carsonb at 8:34 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by lizbunny at 8:37 AM on June 3, 2011

I worked on an organic farm briefly and helped prepare produce for a farmer's market. We were specifically instructed to NOT make the produce look clean and shiny because some customers equate "dirty" with "organic" in a positive way.
posted by acidic at 8:39 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

my greens from my farm share always have some dirt and aphids on them - they don't take the time to wash it because it is harvested that morning, usually. the wholefoods of the world generally is clean and bug free, but i personally think they are catering to the "sanitized" world that we live in, where many folks forget that even their non-organic veggies had dirt and bugs (well, maybe bugs, maybe not, if monsanto has a say) all over them. and of course, they don't need to be "washed" to remove chemicals sprayed on them. the local grocery? unclear, but perhaps it's about the seller, washing or not. at my local farmer's market, depending on the stand, the greens are more/less washed. i really think it depends on the farmer's politics in some ways. as my csa owner wrote the list last year:

"Another note --- Insects on the vegetables.

broccoli (last week we had someone get very emotional because there were 'filthy little green worms' on the broccoli. For the record. These are not 'filthy worms' they are actually the pupa stage of those white butterfly critters you see flying around a field of vegetables.

There is an organic remedy for loopers, BT, that acts as a growth inhibitor and kills the loopers. However, just to be on the safe side, we don't spray BT on our broccoli within a week of when people are going to be eating it (and we have been harvesting broccoli for several weeks now).

When you see a looper pupa on your broccoli, instead of upsetting the person who wrote me, it should be making her feel safe, knowing her vegetables are not loaded down with unseen poisons. And while some people, in the past, have suggested we charge extra for this added protein we're giving out with the broccoli, I suggest for those of you who don't eat insects that its easy to either pick the loopers off the broccoli (they don't bite) or just submerge the broccoli in a pot or bucket of water for a few minutes (maybe even a half hour). Most loopers under water drop off the broccoli and go to the bottom of the container.

Another insect that have started appearing in the lettuce and broccoli are harlequin bugs. There are various harlequins out there but they are all brightly colored, usually orange or red with black. I can't find an organic poison that kills harlequins (and I refuse to use rotenone which I think is dangerous), so while rotating crops helps keep the harlequins down it doesn't stop them. My suggestion, if you see a harlequin bug flick it off. From my observation the only thing they seem to do is eat and reproduce)."

oh, the politics of dirt :)
posted by anya32 at 8:39 AM on June 3, 2011 [15 favorites]

A bit of dirt shouldn't be a problem, but it really is incumbent on the store to ensure there aren't obvious bugs on the produce. If this is a recurring issue you can mention it to the produce manager at the store you shop at.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 8:40 AM on June 3, 2011

If anything, take the presence of dirt and bugs as a sign that the produce is local and fresh.

Unless it's sealed in packaging, "washed" produce probably isn't significantly "cleaner" in terms of harmful bacteria. It's just got less dirt. If it's fresh, not wrapped, and does not have a skin you peel away, you should at the very least rinse it off before putting it in your mouth- you don't know where people's hands have been.

amanda: "if there's a lot of bugs I admit that I just toss it out."

I completely understand this feels gross to you, but the "pre-washed" produce had those bugs crawling all over it at some point, too. As long as it's not rotten (and you don't see larva), the bugs haven't compromised anything.
posted by mkultra at 8:42 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would personally go with the third option. Here's the deal, in my experience: industrial organic produce is cleaner, but problematic in many ways (not that I don't eat it, but see e.g. Omnivore's Dilemma). Local organic produce tends to be less thoroughly washed, but better. Curly greens (e.g. very curly kale, chard) are the extreme case, I think it is hard for anyone to wash them thoroughly without a lot of effort. I'm actually pretty suspicious of what's been done to curly greens if they are really thoroughly clean when they get to you.

You should also be aware that some produce shouldn't be extensively washed before storage (with water at least), and will last longer before it is washed.
posted by advil at 8:42 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

So, what's going on here? Large grocery chain offering organic at better prices by cutting out some kind of produce-washing middleman? Or do they just think that as a customer looking for organic, I won't believe it unless it comes with caterpillars and half the farm?

The large grocery chain almost certainly gets its produce from factory farms. The fact that a product is labeled "organic" doesn't mean all that much most places. A lot of hydroponic farms are technically "organic" as they use a minimum of pesticides. Because it's produced in such large quantities, it tends to be cheaper.

The stuff you get from local sources though tends to be more expensive, because they don't have the same economies of scale. They're also less likely to be hydroponic.

Which of these sources is "better" is left as an exercise for the reader, but that's basically where the price differential comes from.
posted by valkyryn at 8:44 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

You ought to be washing or peeling your fresh produce (as appropriate) regardless of origin.

Even when it looks clean, it might be waxed, have residual fertilizer or insecticide/herbicide (if it's non-organic), and so on. The only exception I can think of offhand are the baby carrots and bagged salad greens that are sold thoroughly pre-washed, but ideally you should wash those, too, if you're not treating them as lunchtime ready-to-eat fare.

A little dirt won't hurt you, true, and bugs are going to be good for protein, but chomping on the grit in cabbage leaves isn't the most delicious experience. And if you're veg*an, the bugs are issues for other reasons.
posted by ardgedee at 8:51 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah - rinse the produce and then dunk in in plain old water for a few minutes. Most veg can go a half hour, but a few soft things can't. (Mushrooms come to mind.)

Once you get rid of the insects, your vegetables are perfectly safe. It's not a lot of work, really. If nothing else, the presence of visible dirt and such reminds people that they should be cleaning their produce off, anyway. If it looks too "clean", people take shortcuts.
posted by Citrus at 9:00 AM on June 3, 2011

I am with you being grossed out by the bugs. I understand that it means no nasty pesticides have been used, and I wish I could just flick them off and chow down, but I'm usually not able to do that. Broccoli is the worst because of the places bugs hide, so I just stopped buying it organic. Fruits and other non-leafy veggies I will buy organic, but anything with lots of hiding places I can't stomach the bug issue. So I'd say either try mentioning the bug issue to the store manager, try a different store, or only buy certain things organic/pesticide-free.
posted by JenMarie at 9:21 AM on June 3, 2011

Anything labeled organic in the USA legally must adhere to the USDA-FDA standard for organic which means no synthetic chemical inputs, among other things - which is not to argue that a lot of technically organic farming doesn't get functionally pretty close to conventional factory-scale farming or that organic is always healthier or safer or better for you.

In answer to the basic question, in my experience you can find organic produce that is basically as clean and manicured and bug-free as conventional produce. Your grocery chain's sourcing of its produce may be the issue, if it's important to you, you might want to shop around, look at high-end co-ops etc.
posted by nanojath at 9:27 AM on June 3, 2011

You might look at buying a salad spinner. I used to mock them ("People buy a device for washing their lettuce? Really?"), then I started buying chard and realized that, yes, it really is faster/easier/more water-efficient to use a spinner.

Also, while a certain amount of bugs/dirt is probably inevitable, I do think that a past a certain threshold of bugs (more than a dozen or so, especially if they're still wandering around under their own power), it's reasonable to voice some concern, of the "Hey, it seemed like there were way more bugs than usual on the kale last week, is that normal for this time of year?" variety. A few bugs aren't a problem, but large-scale infestations can and do cause problems if they aren't caught soon, and there are ways of dealing with that without spraying.
posted by kagredon at 10:44 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

HMM if it has aphids on it its not a good organic farm. Most good organic farms know the right combo of plants and other insects to keep things like lettuce bug free.
posted by majortom1981 at 11:42 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just a word of warning - organic, farm fresh corn on the cob: peel the husks off that cob before you cook it. We usually wrapped it in foil (husk and all) and steamed it on the grill, until one time there was some extra steamed caterpillar protein in there.

I still gag just thinking about it!
posted by jillithd at 12:11 PM on June 3, 2011

So, it sounds like the higher end stores are taking additional steps to offer fairly clean produce. My big grocery chain store may be presenting the organic goods the way they are to keep costs low, to improve their profit margin and possibly have a notion that as a consumer, I want to see the dirt.

I may send them a note just for the heck of it. A little dirt, a few bugs I'm cool with but the produce is more expensive and some of the stuff I've ended up with has been really nasty. Maybe the economy has them cutting corners, too. Looking forward to the neighborhood farmers market to open in a few weeks!
posted by amanda at 5:22 PM on June 3, 2011

I hate that the conventional produce is waterlogged (it goes bad faster) from constant spraying with water to make it look all sparkly! clean!

I was more squeamish about bugs until I started growing my own veggies. Both lettuces and dark leafy greens are very, very prone to all manner of little buggy creatures who blunder into the greens despite the best attempts at dissuasion. It's not a big deal.
posted by desuetude at 5:29 PM on June 3, 2011

Does buying produce labeled organic mean I am also down for buying food that is covered in dirt and bugs?

Yeah, pretty much.

But the dirt and the bugs are mainly what makes the organic stuff better for you in the first place.

That's because the organic vegetables have more vital and highly developed microbial communities on them from the bugs and the unpoisoned soil, and those microbes not only help your digestive system break down the vegetables (bugs seem likely to be a rich source of these from their own guts, since they eat, digest, and then poop on your veggies) they help protect you from pathogenic microbes and diseases such as kidney stones. And other problems:

Body's Bacteria Affect Atherosclerosis
Gut Bacteria Can Control Organ Functions
Gut Bacteria Linked to Behavior: That Anxiety May Be in Your Gut, Not in Your Head

It seems likely to me that the most salutary microbes would probably be found on the vegetables grown in the areas where they were first domesticated, because subsistence farmers with vegetables with the best microbes would tend to prosper, leave more descendants, be more successful in war--and so forth over thousands of years.

But organic vegetables anywhere, regardless of origin, are likely to be more beneficial from this point of view than their non-organic counterparts.
posted by jamjam at 10:35 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ideally, there's no human gut flora on your veggies. That would mean somepne's been shitting on them. Good way to transmit cholera!
posted by mr_roboto at 10:47 PM on June 3, 2011

They're not human gut flora until a human eats them and they become established in a human gut, of course, but the gut flora currently occupying your digestive tract presumably did not arise through spontaneous generation, mr_roboto, and the fact that probiotics are effective for some intestinal problems implies that new strains and new species can be established there throughout the course of a life relatively easily.

Cholera bacteria, by the way, in case you are actually interested, are not exclusive to humans, and "can live naturally in any environment."
posted by jamjam at 1:31 AM on June 4, 2011

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