E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


What Does 'Organic' Really Mean? On Oct. 21, Food Shoppers Will Find Out.

(Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Candy Sagon, The Washington Post, 10/09/2002: If a shopper buys organic lettuce from California and organic tomatoes from Virginia, are they both equally organic? Is the fresh-squeezed organic orange juice bought at a farmers' market in Pennsylvania as pure as the carton of organic orange juice bought in a supermarket in Maryland? Just what exactly does "organic" mean, anyway?

Until now, the shopper had no way of knowing. There were no government standards for the use of the word "organic." The definition could change from state to state. Or, it could just be hype. If a company -- or farmer -- wanted to call a product organic, there was no one to check to make sure it really was. All that will change on Oct. 21, when any food marked "organic" will have to meet national standards set by the federal government.

Under new rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, consumers choosing organic products will know that the food has been produced without pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, irradiation or bio-engineering. Further, organic farmers will be required to conserve soil and water to enhance environmental quality and treat animals humanely. These standards will apply to both U.S.-grown food, as well as imported food.

The USDA will use accredited private companies and state agencies to inspect and certify companies as organic. In the Washington area, for example, the Virginia Department of Agriculture is a USDA-accredited certifying agent.

Foods that meet the standards can be labeled in one of four categories: "100 percent organic," "organic" (at least 95 percent), "made with organic ingredients" (at least 70 percent) or "contains organic ingredients." Foods that are 100 or 95 percent organic have the option of displaying the new green USDA Organic seal (see box on Page F2).

Small farmers (those with less than $5,000 in organic sales) will be exempt from the certification process. However, if they call their product organic -- at farmers' markets, for example -- they will be required to comply with the new government standards, meaning no pesticides, antibiotics or other prohibited substances or practices.

Those who fail to meet the regulations but still label their food as organic can face penalties of up to $10,000 per violation.

Organic producers such as David Cole, chairman of Green Circle Organics, which raises certified organic beef in Washington, Va., calls the new standards "a great leap forward for the consumer" and a huge boost for the organic industry. His company introduced seasoned organic hamburgers this summer. Like many others, he plans to introduce new certified-organic products this month, (heat-and-serve meals aimed at busy parents), partly to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the new rules.

Retailers, like the Whole Food supermarket chain, are pleased with the standards as well. Margaret Wittenberg, vice president for government affairs for the chain, says the regulations have finally created a level playing field. "They've gotten the spirit and essence of what the organic industry has been trying to do all along."

Consumers won't see an immediate change on supermarket shelves on Oct. 21. Manufacturers have a grace period to sell existing products before the new labels appear, explained a spokesman for Giant supermarkets. At Whole Foods stores, consumers will see signs with the USDA seal in the produce section and brochures explaining the new regulations. Some dairy products may also have the new seals by that date, says a Whole Foods spokesman.

While organic food represents a small sliver of overall U.S. grocery sales, that sliver has been growing at a healthy 20 percent per year in the past decade. Sales of organic food and beverages topped $9 billion last year (about 1 to 2 percent of the country's $500 billion food industry), and industry analysts expect that to grow to $20 billion by 2005. "There is tremendous opportunity among American consumers who are concerned about their longevity and health," says Mark Rodriguez, president of organic food company Walnut Acres, who plans to have the new USDA seal "on 100 percent of our products."

The organic food business took root with environmentalists in the '70s and gained visibility in the '80s, thanks to food scares over cancer-causing pesticides on apples and salmonella in eggs. By 1990, it had reached $1 billion in sales, and Congress called for a national standard for organic foods.

It took more than a decade for the new standard to be hammered out. Just about every group involved with food -- from farmers and manufacturers to consumers, retailers and scientists -- wanted its say. The debate seesawed during those years between the stricter standards favored by the organic industry and consumers, and the looser definitions supported by conventional farmers and processors.

When proposed standards were issued by the USDA in 1997, more than 275,000 organic producers and consumers wrote to criticize the preliminary rules for allowing too many conventional farming practices, including using sewer sludge as fertilizer and pesticides to control weeds and pests. Such practices were eventually eliminated from the rules, but last-minute maneuvering continues.

Earlier this year, the USDA considered a request by a Georgia poultry company to allow chicken and other livestock to be labeled organic, even if the feed was not 100 percent organic. When the USDA asked for public feedback on the issue, it received 50,000 comments, most arguing for 100 percent organic feed, which is now required.

"There's still a lot of discussion -- about whether chickens should be outdoors [to be certified as organic], about 100 percent organic feed," admits Barbara Robinson, a USDA official overseeing the program. "Probably half the people think [the standards] are too strict, half think they're not strict enough, so we must be doing something right."

Some groups aren't so sure. The Organic Consumers Association, a 400,000-member nonprofit group formed during the 1997 rules controversy, calls the current standards "Grade B organic."

"They basically meet the minimum aspirations of the organic community," says national director Ronnie Cummins. He wishes products could advertise "that they meet higher standards than the USDA," but he's satisfied that at least the new rules "closed some of the loopholes."

Organic businesses are more enthusiastic. "The seal will be a boon to the industry. Consumers will have more confidence in products with clear, consistent labeling," says Katherine DiMatteo with the Organic Trade Association. Her group, representing organic businesses in the United States, Canada and Mexico, pushed for even stricter labeling, including making the USDA seal mandatory instead of voluntary.

A spokesman for Horizon Organic in Boulder, Colo., which produces organic milk and dairy products, is even more adamant about the new standards: "They will move organics to the next level. It means the mainstreaming of organics," says director of marketing Laurie Coblentz.

That much is obvious by the number of large corporations -- General Mills, Coca-Cola and Heinz, among them -- who have been snapping up small organic companies and selling their products in mainstream supermarkets. General Mills recently acquired Small Planet foods (which, in turn, owned organic food companies Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen) and has launched an organic cereal line. Heinz has introduced organic ketchup and canned spaghetti, while Coca-Cola bought organic juice companies Odwalla and Fresh Samantha.

The word "organic" on a package, however, doesn't necessarily mean it's healthier. New York dietitian Mindy Hermann says reading labels is still just as important. "You can't put your nutrition knowledge on hold and just look for the word 'organic.' They can make organic doughnuts and organic chips that are just as high in fat and calories as the conventional kind."

There is organic junk food, agrees Cummins with the Organic Consumers Association, but he argues that organic food, in general, is healthier than conventional food.

"The public aren't idiots. That's why two-thirds of people say they're buying organic -- because it doesn't have the pesticides and growth hormones. It's safer and healthier."