Oh Organics, My Organics
“Organics” have arrived. They are more popular than ever, but what exactly is organic food? How does organic farming differ from conventional farming? How does the organic labeling process work? And, what does it all mean to you, the well-intentioned consumer? You might be surprised by some of the answers.
Over the past few decades, organics have moved from the “lunatic fringe” to the red carpet. Literally. This paradigm shift was most evident at the 2004 American Music Awards held in Los Angeles. Each year, celebrities, usually accustomed to receiving gaudy gift bags brimming with fancy fragrances and trendy technology, were instead presented with a more natural offering: “ecogift bags” filled with organic treats like Annie’s Homegrown Organic Macaroni and Cheese, Taylor Maid Farms organic coffee, and organic cotton tote bags from Patagonia.
Organics are not only en vogue among luminaries and de rigueur among foodies, middle America is going organic, too. The 2002 Organic Consumer Trends Report found that thirty-nine percent of the U.S. population uses organic products.
Organic food production is a $16 billion-a-year industry, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA) – and it is rising precipitously. Even though organic still accounts for a mere 3% of overall food sales, it is growing at a sizzling rate of 17-20% per year as compared to a glacial rate of 2-3% for conventional foods.
“Once you have Kraft marketing an organic product, albeit through another brand, you really can’t be more part of the mainstream than that,” said Don Montuori, editor of Packaged Facts, an industry publication.
More people eating healthier food produced in safe and sustainable ways is all good, right? Well, not necessarily.
Double-digit growth can be a double-edged sword. Organic food production is growing so rapidly that it is straining the system. There are not enough organic farms and organically raised animals in the United States to meet demand.
When demand outpaces supply, things can go awry. For example, in 2006, The Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog organization, filed a legal complaint before the USDA against Dean Foods, the largest milk bottler in the United States. The complaint alleged that Horizon Organic Milk came from cows reared in factory farms that violated organic standards. Specifically, Horizon’s dairy cows did not have sufficient access to pasture and were kept in inhumane conditions. The case is still pending.
“As organics become more mainstream, the standards are at risk,” says Ronnie Cummins, a national director for the Organic Consumer Organization. “Mass market and organics aren’t always compatible,” he adds.
First, let’s get clear on the differences between organic and conventional farming –how and why the distinction was originally drawn.
In 1990, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Bill included The Organic Foods Production Act, which was created to establish uniform national standards for the production and handling of foods labeled as “organic.” The Act authorized a new USDA National Organic Program to set national standards for the production, handling, and processing of organically grown agricultural products.
The USDA National Organic Program now oversees mandatory certification of organic production. The Act also established the National Organic Standards Board which advises the Secretary of Agriculture in setting the standards upon which the National Organic Program is based. Producers who meet standards set by the National Organic Program may label their products as “USDA Certified Organic.”
Here is the technical definition of “organic food” according to the USDA National Organic Program website: “Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.”
Fairly clear cut, right? Unfortunately, things aren’t so clear. The ability to emblazon a food product with the word “organic” is a valuable marketing advantage. And, when a subtle advantage can be leveraged for financial gain, it’s a breeding ground for situational ethics — and compromised standards.
Organic certification is intended to protect consumers from misuse of the term, and to make buying organics more straightforward. However, as the demand for organics rise, some large food manufacturers are attempting to weaken organic standards. Even the slightest downgrade in those standards can represent a financial windfall to large food companies.
Some believe that the U.S. government is also seeking to undercut organic standards. For example, Congress passed a $397 billion spending bill that contained a buried provision which could jeopardize U.S. organic standards. The provision, which was slipped into the bill at the last minute without debate, would “permit livestock producers to certify meat and dairy products as organic even if the animals had been fed non-organic or genetically engineered grain.” The provision would override the NOP’s requirement that 100% organic feed be used to produce organic meat products.
While many forces seek to soften organic standards, others go above and beyond to safeguard and uphold them.
“We’re talking about people’s health here,” says Dr. Jack J. Singh, founder of Organic Food Bar, Inc. Health is our most precious asset. Food companies should protect that at all costs! When you run a food company, you are feeding families with children. It is incumbent on everyone in this business to do everything they can to protect people’s health, particularly now as we face a health care crisis in this country.”
What the big companies don’t quite grasp is that unflinching integrity is good for customers – and good for business, too.
- If you want to eat purely organic food, the label should read: “100% organic” and nothing less. Only products made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods can be labeled “100% organic.”
- Products with at least 95% organic ingredients can use the word “organic” and can also include the USDA organic seal. The other 5% can be conventionally-grown ingredients.
- A third category, containing a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, can be labeled “made with organic ingredients.”
- In most cases, the word “natural” on a product label means very little because, unlike the designation “organic,” the word “natural” has no legal definition.
- Whenever possible, buy food produced closer to home. That way, you know your food is fresher — and you know where it comes from! The recent food scare with China, while unsettling, has compelled many Americans to examine the origins of their food. This is good. The fact is that locally-produced food is better for you, it’s better for your community — and, it’s better for the planet.
To learn more about organics, visit The Organic Trade Association at: http://www.ota.com
For more healthy living tips, visit: http://www.organicfoodbar.com