You’ve likely heard that organic food is healthier because it uses less pesticides and other chemicals and is free from artificial ingredients. But, what about the cleaning products used in food production and processing?
In Canada, all food processors are required to follow sanitation standards established by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), regardless of whether they produce organic or conventional foods. The CFIA conducts regular inspections and sampling to ensure compliance with regulations for both organic and conventional production facilities, including verifying that the appropriate type of cleaning products are being used in each facility.
These guidelines include standards on cleaning agents used on equipment, utensils and surface areas. Additionally, all food must be processed in a safe and sanitary manner that does not present any health risks.
However, the cleaning agents used in organic food manufacturing are different from the ones used in conventional food processing. The chemical disinfectants used in conventional facilities include chlorine bleach and alcohol solutions, chlorine dioxide, peroxyacetic acid, and other sanitizing agents.
On the other hand, organic standards require that only water and non-chemical cleaning agents be used such as acetic acid, (the main component of vinegar), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), organic alcohol sources, food-grade hydrogen peroxide at 3% concentration, and cleaners derived from essential oils.
Organic food production requires the use of biodegradable cleaning products because chemicals that are not biodegradable can remain in the soil or water for a long time and be absorbed by plants and animals. The organic standards take into account the potential for a chemical to remain in soil, water or food, and its impact on human health.
Residues from approved cleaning agents used in conventional food processing may be found on some food, though the CFIA limits these residues to levels that are considered safe for consumption. While the safety of chemicals used in conventional food production is carefully regulated, even small amounts of chemical exposure can be toxic over time.
Organic food processing must also employ methods of pest control that will not harm humans, animals or the environment. This means they may use biological controls such as beneficial insects and traps, physical barriers such as screens and nets, or naturally occurring substances like soaps and oils. As opposed to conventional food processing which may use synthetic pesticides and other chemicals to protect their crops from pests and weeds.
In addition to limiting our exposure to chemicals in food by choosing to eat organic, it’s also important to reduce the use of harsh toxic cleaning products in our homes. Many common household cleaning products contain hazardous chemicals like chlorine and ammonia, which can cause skin and respiratory irritation and potentially lead to long-term health problems.
Research has shown that cleaning products are damaging worker respiratory health. Published in the journal, Occupational and Environmental Medicine “In the last decade, consistent and growing evidence of an epidemic of ‘asthma-like’ respiratory symptoms among occupational cleaners has been reported worldwide.”
Examples of health concerns that arise by being exposed to cleaning agents at work or in our homes include:
- Respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema due to the inhalation of toxic fumes. Air fresheners for example, contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can aggravate respiratory conditions. Automatic dishwasher pods contain chlorine and can cause skin, throat, and nose irritation as well as respiratory issues.
- Skin irritation or rashes caused by contact with harsh or irritating chemicals such as bleach and ammonia, which can be found in many common household cleaning products.
- Neurological issues such as headaches and dizziness, due to the inhalation of toxic fumes from some cleaning products like oven cleaners and bathroom cleaners.
- Reproductive issues such as infertility, birth defects and miscarriages when exposed at high levels to chemicals like phthalates, solvents, and formaldehyde in cleaning products such as laundry detergents and fabric softeners.
- Cancer due to long-term exposure to certain chemicals like formaldehyde, benzene and Perchloroethylene (PCE) found in many cleaning products such as carpet cleaners and laundry detergents.
There have been health concerns related to the use of conventional perfume-based laundry detergent and conventional dishwasher pods. Studies have found that these products contain VOCs, which can lead to respiratory and neurological problems when inhaled in high enough concentrations. VOCs from these products can also linger on fabrics and dishes, leading to prolonged exposure.
Fumes from air fresheners, oven cleaners and other chemical-based products can also be harmful. Depending on the concentration, some of these chemicals can cause skin and eye irritation, headaches, dizziness and other health problems.
To sum up, there are strict standards for sanitation and pest control for both organic and conventional food processing in Canada. These standards are put in place to ensure that our food is safe for consumption and free from cross-contamination.
Regardless, residues from manufacturing facilities and from chemicals in our homes can accumulate over time and be dangerous, which is why it’s important to limit our exposure by choosing organic food and natural cleaning products.