Help Guide the Health-Minded
ELEENA DE LISSER / Wall Street Journal 20aug02
[ mindfully.org note: USDA explanation below WSJ article ]
Pesticide-free red peppers for $4.99 a pound? All-natural chicken for $1.79 a pound? Organic milk for $2.99 a half gallon?
Strolling through the organic-food section of a grocery store can be an exercise in frustration. Until now, there has been no federal law governing the use of the word "organic." Foods using that label are now a $9.3 billion industry. In recent years, it has gone mainstream, with household names like Heinz introducing an organic ketchup, and large supermarket chains, like Kroger, expanding organic food offerings.
But starting Oct. 21, the federal government will begin certifying what can be labeled organic. The new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules -- more than a decade in the making -- will govern thousands of items from the produce aisle to the freezer case. Some products currently called "organic" won't be able to use that word anymore.
Under the new rules, shoppers will see a green-and-white label with the USDA initials on it. To be deemed organic, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. They also can't be fed animal byproducts, such as feathers and ground-up chicken parts. For a dairy farm to be certified as organic, its cows must be allowed, among other things, to graze on grass that hasn't been subjected to pesticides. An organic vegetable must be grown without using conventional pesticides.
The agency will also certify that items meet one of four new organic categories:
- 100% organic
- Organic (meaning it contains 95% or more organic ingredients)
- Made with organic ingredients (at least 70% of the product is organic)
- Contains organic ingredients (though the word "organic" can't appear on the front of the package).
Is Organic Healthier?
Still, debate continues as to whether even genuinely organic products are inherently healthier. Nelda Mercer, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says there is no scientific evidence showing that organically produced foods are nutritionally better than their conventional counterparts.
Concerns about pesticides, she adds, can be addressed by thoroughly washing fruit, preferably with commercially available fruit and vegetable washes, or peeling skins off. Ms. Mercer says a lot of contamination can happen just in the handling of the produce, from the field to the store's display aisle.
For people worried about the issue of growth hormones, the use of antibiotics and or the general treatment of animals, then organic is a way to appease them, she adds. But the FDA has said that the amount of hormones used in commercial livestock isn't enough to harm humans.
ORGANIC VS. CONVENTIONAL
Organic Conventional Whole Foods Atlanta Market Publix Lettuce $1.69 $1.29 Cottage cheese, 16 oz. $2.99 $1.59 Chicken $2.09 per pound $0.79 per pound Burlingame, Calif. Mollie Stone's Safeway Celery $0.99 $0.69 Dozen eggs $3.78 $2.19 Whole chicken $2.99 per pound $1.29 per pound New York City Perelandra Natural Food Center Key Food Lettuce $1.69 $0.99 Gallon of milk $4.99 $2.69 Steak, 8 oz. $9.59 per pound $7.89 per pound
For Ms. Mercer's part, organic dairy, meat and poultry products just taste better. "But scientifically when you analyze the conventional chicken and how much iron, protein, etc., it has, it's going to be the same as the conventional one."
Once solely a staple niche in health food stores, the organic food category gained visibility in the late 1980s after a series of food scares. Wider availability and a consumer willingness to pay a premium, sometimes 10% or more over conventional food prices, has fueled the organic food industry's annual sales. They have been growing about 20% annually, according to the Organic Trade Association, which represents organic farmers.
Call for a National Standard
In 1990, Congress passed a law calling for a national standard for organic foods. But it took the USDA a decade to develop a set of regulations because everybody from environmentalists and farmers to food processors "wanted their thumbprint" on them, says Barbara Robinson, a USDA official.
In fact, the organic farmers and food processors pushed for stricter regulation, seeking to tighten up any loopholes, she says. Under the final regulation, one criterion is that livestock and poultry be fed 100% organic feed. An early version of the rule, however, had set that proportion at 80%. But when the USDA asked for feedback, it received 50,000 comments, most arguing for 100% organic feed.
Many food processors and farmers, who say it costs more to grow crops and raise animals organically, welcome the regulations saying they will distinguish them from companies casually using the term organic.
Other Nutrient Regulation
The new labeling act is akin to the Food and Drug Administration's regulation in the 1990s of nutrient claims, like "sodium-free," "low fat," and "lite." Today, for example, "fat free" means a half gram of fat or less.
The USDA will use private companies and state agencies on organic certifications and inspections. It won't deploy its current network of conventional food and meat inspectors to handle the new work.
The fresh government standards may ease some of the confusion for shoppers like Edward Kenny, 42 years old, of Madison, N.J. He once visited an organic grocery store but left empty handed. "Everything was more expensive," he says. He says he has had a fuzzy understanding of what organic means, defining it as the lack of "crazy chemicals" in the food's production.
Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts From USDA
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put in place a set of national standards that food labeled "organic" must meet, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries. After October 21, 2002, when you buy food labeled "organic," you can be sure that it was produced using the highest organic production and handling standards in the world.
What is organic food?
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; petroleum- based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers; bio-engineering; 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.
Is organic food better for me and my family?
USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown, handled, and processed.
When I go to the supermarket, how can I tell organically produced food from conventionally produced food?
You must look at package labels and watch for signs in the
supermarket. Along with the national organic standards, USDA developed
strict labeling rules to help consumers know the exact organic content of the
food they buy. The USDA Organic seal also tells you that a product
is at least 95 percent organic.
Look for the word "organic" and a small sticker version of the USDA Organic seal on vegetables or pieces of fruit. Or they may appear on the sign above the organic produce display.
The word "organic" and the seal may also appear on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods.
Foods with more than one ingredient
The following photo shows examples of the labels that may be used on a wide variety of products that use organic ingredients.
sample cereal boxes show
the four labeling categories.
- cereal with 100 percent organic ingredients;
- cereal with 95-100 percent organic ingredients;
- cereal made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients;
- and cereal with less than 70 percent organic ingredients.
Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients may list specific organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package. Look for the name and address of the Government-approved certifier on all packaged products that use organic ingredients.
Will I find the USDA Organic seal on all 100 percent organic products, or products with at least 95 percent organic ingredients?
No. The use of the seal is voluntary.
How is use of the USDA Organic seal protected?
People who sell or label a product "organic" when they know it does not meet USDA standards can be fined up to $10,000 for each violation.
Does natural mean organic?
No. Natural and organic are not interchangeable. Other truthful claims, such as free-range, hormone-free, and natural, can still appear on food labels. However, don't confuse these terms with "organic." Only food labeled "organic" has been certified as meeting USDA organic standards.
For more detailed information on the USDA organic standards, visit our web site at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop, call the National Organic Program at 202-720-3252, or write USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room 4008 S. Bldg., Ag Stop 0268, 1400 Independence, SW, Washington, DC 20250.
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