USDA Approved

February 12, 2003

Most parents think a big apple is healthier than a Big Mac, but is it? More than a decade ago, a pesticide called Alar, prominently used on U.S. apple crops, was banned because of its cancer-causing effects. That was the first clue mainstream Americans had that perhaps the food -- and pesticides -- they were eating might not be safe.
Awareness of this issue has come a long way in the past decade. As early as 1989, the National Resources Defense Council issued a report titled "Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children's Food" followed by a 1993 report by the National Academy of Sciences titled "Pesticides in Infants and Children." Both concluded children were being exposed to pesticide residues in food that were well above government safety levels set for adults.
Beginning in October 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture required anyone who earns more than $5,000 annually producing or handling organic food to be certified by the USDA's National Organic Program. The guidelines outline specific requirements for representing food as "100 percent organic," "organic" (95 percent to 100 percent organic) -- the only two that can carry the new, green USDA organic seal -- or "made with organic ingredients" (70 percent to 95 percent organic content). 
By definition, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones, according to the USDA Web site (, and organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, sewage sludge-based fertilizers, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. 
With stricter guidelines in place, consumers should be able to make better informed choices. As recently as 1999, though, the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit environmental research organization, reported that 20 million children ages 5 and younger eat an average of eight pesticides a day every day -- a total of more than 2,900 pesticide exposures per child per year from food.
What are these chemicals -- relatively new to the farming industry -- doing to the growing bodies of children? Dr. Alan Greene, a member of the clinical faculty of Stanford University School of Medicine, says there's reason to be cautious.
"Children are developing organs to last a lifetime," he says. "Due to their smaller size, fast-growing, speedy metabolisms and less varied diets, infants and children are more vulnerable to health and developmental damage."
Dr. LuAnn Soliah, a dietitian and professor of family and consumer sciences at Baylor, says the people she encounters don't seem too concerned about it. "Most people I talk to are 10 steps behind on this issue," she says.
Baylor graduates Karen and Jack Heald, BM '80 and '82 respectively, were several steps ahead on the value of healthy food. The Healds, who live in Scottsdale, Ariz., with their four children, opted for healthy food choices when their first child was born in 1982. Karen made her baby food from organic fruits and vegetables, milled flour and baked bread -- and she thinks her kids were healthier because of it. "We had four healthy babies and only two trips to the ER for stitches," she says.
Despite living on a tight budget in their early years of marriage, she believes her choice was a financially sound one. "Buying organic and whole foods is more expensive, but I would rather nourish than medicate," she says.
Those not ready to switch completely to organic foods, which generally cost 20 percent to 25 percent more retail than conventional food, have other options. Dr. Soliah recommends washing or peeling fruits and vegetables, as well as varying children's diets to diversify the level and type of pesticides ingested from conventional foods. 

McMullan, BA '88, received her degree in journalism and political science. A former editor of the Lariat, she has written for Texas Monthly, Southern Living, The Dallas Morning News and is a contributing editor for D Magazine.