Is eating organic food better? In a surprise, Stanford University doctors said: maybe not.

Eating organic fruits and vegetables can lower exposure to pesticides, but the amount measured from conventionally grown produce was within safety limits, the researchers reported. Nor did the organic foods prove more nutritious.

"I was absolutely surprised," said Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior researcher and internist. When it comes to individual health, "there isn't much difference."

Her team did find a notable difference with antibiotic-resistant germs, a concern because they are harder to treat if they cause food poisoning. Specialists long have said that organic or not, the chances of bacterial contamination of food are the same, and this analysis agreed. But when bacteria did lurk in chicken or pork, germs in the non-organic meats had a 33 percent higher risk of being resistant to multiple antibiotics, they reported in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Organic foods account for 4.2 percent of retail food sales, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It accounted for $31.4 billion in sales last year, said a federal report, up from $3.6 billion in 1997. Products are certified organic if they meet such requirements as being produced without synthetic pesticides, or routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones.

The Stanford team combed through thousands of studies to analyze the 237 that most rigorously compared organic and conventional foods.

Organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of containing detectable pesticide levels. In two studies of children, urine testing showed lower pesticide levels in those on organic diets. But Bravata cautioned that both groups harbored very small amounts -- and said one study suggested insecticide use in their homes may be more to blame than their food.

"Parents with young children should consider where their produce is coming from," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She said types grown in the United States or Canada "a safer bet" for lower pesticide levels.