The FSA review, which concluded that there was “little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally-produced food" and "no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food” was immediately challenged by the Soil Association and the Organic Trade Board when it was published last July,
However, an independent assessment by a sub-group of the General Advisory Committee on Science (GACS) has concluded that the review “followed good practice at all stages” and that the research had undergone “extensive and rigorous peer review”.
But it did advise the FSA to develop a “clear policy on releasing underpinning data not already in the public domain” and to inform interested parties in advance “when it is known that results may be published at very short notice”.
Soil Association: FSA should have waited
However, the Soil Association told FoodManufacture.co.uk that the FSA had "rushed out" its review last year and "should have waited" for the results of the large EU-funded QualityLowInputFood (QLIF) research programme (completed in April 2009), which suggested that organic crops were higher in beneficial antioxidants, fatty acids, vitamins, glycosinolates and lower in harmful mycotoxins, glycoalkaloids, cadmium and nickel.
A spokeswoman also added that the Soil Association's faith in the independence of scientific committees advising the FSA had been dented following the recent resignation of two members of an independent steering group on genetically modified foods in protest over the agency's apparently pro-GM stance. However she was unable to outline specific concerns about GACS members.
She added: "We stand by our view that the FSA review was limited in it scope and analysis and only looked at research papers with abstracts written in English.
"It also excluded the results of more than half the papers it found, and it ignored more up-to-date research from the EU, completed in April of 2009, despite knowing this research was due to be published."
The FSA's own review also revealed there were higher levels of beneficial nutrients including beta-carotene, copper, potassium, zinc and phenolic compounds in organic compared with non-organic foods, she claimed, although the FSA argued that the variations were statistically insignificant.
FSA chief scientist Dr Andrew Wadge welcomed GACS’ conclusions and said last year's FSA-commissioned review was “an exemplary piece of work that adds greatly to the evidence base”.
He added: “The systematic review objectively assessed the evidence in a complex area where the quality of the published data is very variable.”
The FSA review, which was carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, led by Alan Dangour, reviewed papers published over the past 50 years that related to the nutrient content and health differences between organic and conventional food.
The GACS, which was established in December 2007, provides independent advice on the FSA's governance and use of science. Its work includes horizon scanning, science governance, developing good practice and informing science priorities.
The probe into the FSA review was conducted by a GACS 'sub-group' comprising Dr Ian Brown (a specialist in occupational medicine and toxicology and a graduate in agricultural biochemistry and nutrition), Professor Janet Bainbridge (a professor of biotechnology and food science) and Pamela Goldberg (lay member and ceo of charity Breast Cancer Campaign).
Their conclusions on the FSA organics review are available here.