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A culture blog by Lauren Girardin, a San Francisco-based city girl who eats out and kicks about.

May 09, 2003

The New Organic Standards: Significance, Shortcomings and Controversy

Brought to you by: Send Organic Flowers. Same Price, Better World!

There is an idyllic image of organic food production, one where nutritious fruits and vegetables grown by Ma and Pa Farmer flourish with nary a pesticide in sight; fertilized with fresh manure from the beloved pet goat, watered with clean spring rains, cheerfully harvested by living-wage-paid workers, and sold locally to John and Jane Consumer at a reasonable profit.

However, in these modern bureaucratic times, there now exist hundreds of pages containing rules, recommendations, restrictions, record-keeping, restraints, responsibilities, and regulations all about the exact legal meaning of "organic" for the U.S. food industry.

Luckily, these dense and detailed rules exist to guard use of the word "organic" on behalf of consumer confidence and product integrity.

Unluckily, the “organic” moniker, lusted after for its marketing muscle and money-making might, may still be emasculated by the very industry it was meant to benefit.

A Word Without Meaning

On October 21, 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) launched the National Organic Program’s (NOP) National Organic Standards (NOS) for food product labeling. Or something like that.

Acronyms aside, until that day, various states each had different rules to qualify food as organic certified; California had its own certification program, Oregon had one, Washington did too. On top of this governmental medley, private companies and non-profits added their own organic endorsements to the mix. Whether state, corporate, or non-profit run, these antecedent standards were mutually inconsistent, and not always rigorous or enforceable. Worse yet for the confused consumer, food products could be labeled as “organic” without any certification whatsoever and even if it was made of little or nothing organic.

“Organic” was mostly an increasingly popular - though nebulous and unreliable - advertising buzz word for a $10 billion dollar a year industry. These increasingly considerable sales of organic products were equally likely to take place at giant corporate supermarkets as at farmer's markets, natural food stores, and co-ops.

Reading the Labels

Now, the word "organic" has been initiated as the most broadly-reliable and rigid set of standards in sustainable foods by the USDA.

There are three types of USDA Organic labels; on the simplest level they each mean that:

• "100 percent organic" labeled products must be entirely organic
• "Organic" labeled products must be made of at least 95% organic ingredients
• "Made with/Contains organic ingredients" labeled products must be at least 70% organic.
(percentages do not include added water or salt)

Food products that are less than 70% organic may identify certified organic ingredients on the ingredient list and on the side panel, but not on the front of the package.

To further help consumers quickly and confidently choose organic, food producers have the option of using the official USDA Organic seal on products that are 100 or at least 95 percent organic, though it is not required.

In general, the organic standards also require food be grown and processed without pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge or synthetic fertilizer, and bioengineering; it must also be produced on farms that have implemented soil and water conservation programs and that provide for the humane treatment of animals. These standards apply for all food for sale in the U.S., whether grown domestically or imported.

These standards apply to any facility that want to use "organic" on a product, from farms earning more than $5,000 a year to processing, packaging, and storage facilities. Retail stores don't need to be certified, nor do facilities that produce only body care products, cosmetics, vitamins, and medications.

One use of the word "organic" that the USDA has disregarded for now, but should be noted by consumers, is that companies may still use "organic" as part of their business name, such as Horizon Organic Dairy.

Better Living Through Organic?

As far as the USDA is concerned, there exists no indisputable evidence that organic food is healthier, safer, preferable, or even worth the extra money. It is emphatic is its assertion that USDA certification is not an endorsement of organic production values, or that the food is more nutritious, of better quality, or a superior consumer choice.

And, organic does not necessarily mean the food itself is pesticide free.

Both conventional and organic foods can contain pesticide contaminants, including the decades-banned DDT. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) explains that the pesticides in organic-certified food can come from two inescapable sources: residues that persist in the environment where the food is grown or pesticides from nearby areas that drift onto or come into contact with organic food. The emphasis of the USDA’s requirements is that organic food must be produced without pesticides.

However, conventional foods are more likely – in general – to be tainted with a larger number and concentration of pesticides than organic. This makes organic the healthier choice, if not to the USDA, at least to the EWG and other consumer and environmental groups.

Failing Grade

As far as Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is concerned, the USDA's version of organic is "Grade B." The OCA's ideal organic standards would oblige more from food producers aiming for organic biz-cred, including additional provisions protecting farm workers and smaller farmers, an emphasis on local production, and a minimization of the distance food is transported.

Another shortcoming of the USDA program is, for those food producers choosing to outdo the USDA's certification requirements, no system exists to recognize their efforts. The USDA's standards represent the full breadth and extent of what organic can signify. There is no motivation to improve upon the system besides belief and conviction.

Additionally, the USDA’s painstaking emphasis that organic certification does not equal endorsement troubles some organic food producers. The concern is that, without endorsement, it will be difficult to convince the majority of mainstream consumers that the often higher cost of organic food is justified.

To add to the disorder, while “organic” is chock full of meaning, other words remain rather meaningless. Companies may still claim “natural,” “hormone-free,” “free-range,” and “sustainably grown” on their packaging. Most confusing for consumers is the widely used “natural;” though defined for use on meat and poultry labels, the USDA does not regulate the use of “natural” for other food commodities. What's natural and what isn't is still ambiguous.

At Risk

As consumers increasingly partake of organic foods, the cachet of "organic" in the advertising lexicon grows. Already, this strengthened prestige has led to efforts to modify the certification system, modifications perceived by many consumers and groups as special interest loopholes that would weaken and devalue organic standards.

Two efforts have been made in Congress to amend the meaning of "organic;" one legislation was conquered after strong protest only to unexpectedly have another legislation added to its repeal.

The initial legislation would have sanctioned meat and poultry fed on non-organic feed to qualify as organic. Now repealed, the pretext for the legislation was a conjectured but never substantiated claim by a sole Georgian factory-farm owner that organic feed costs twice as much as conventional feed.

Piggybacked on the feed provision’s repeal in April 2003, was an equally contentious new legislation that would require the USDA to implement a system to allow wild-caught seafood to qualify as organic.

Among the groups fighting the new legislation is the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which contends that, by their very nature, wild fish cannot meet the USDA standards for organic foods; it is impossible to monitor or control the unpredictable existence, diet, and habitats of wild fish. Additionally, wild fish would likely come into contact with some of the pervasive environmental pollution of the world’s waters, and any chemical contamination would only be detected after capture through testing.

The alternative to wild-caught is farm-raised fish. Though the practice of farm-raising fish sometimes has significant drawbacks, it does enable a controlled, closed-system environment that could be organic certified.

Common to both these legislations is that consumers and organic industry groups were taken by surprise. Vigilance – and action – is crucial if the USDA’s Organic standards are to survive as a consumer benefit, and not simply as ad pizzazz for a few special interest groups in the food industry.

For further information:

Environmental Working Group: http://www.ewg.org/and http://www.foodnews.org/
USDA National Organic Program: www.ams.usda.gov/nop/
Organic Consumers Association: http://www.organicconsumers.org/
Organic Trade Association: http://www.ota.com/

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Lauren Girardin is a writer and creativist willingly living the freelance life in San Francisco, which doesn't entail as many mid-day mimosas as she'd been led to believe.