USDA Says What Is and Isn't Organic
You're at the grocery store and need tomatoes. After selecting the red over
the green kind, you see there is another choice to make: regular or
Natalie Picone picks through the specialty produce, while her
friend, Nicole Griffin, automatically reaches for the conventional brand. Both
women are 30-something mothers of young children and both are concerned about
healthy eating. Yet Natalie's basket brims with organic products, while
Nicole's items are of the standard variety. Which of these women is doing the
Ask that question in a field of people convinced of the merits
of either one, and you may as well have revived a decades-old food fight. Words
such as pesticides, irradiation, and genetic engineering are thrown around,
with each camp convinced of their advantages or evils.
But even controversies are more complex in today's world. In
the pro-organic pasture, there have been debates on which agricultural methods
are OK to use, and thus, on which produce and meats deserve the 'organic'
Natalie sums up the resulting confusion on the consumer end.
"Unfortunately, unless I've grown it in my backyard, I'm not 100% sure that
it's all organic," she says, noting that in her view, the term means grown
naturally, with no chemicals whatsoever.
Yet the mother of two may have to modify her definition, if she
wants to go along with Uncle Sam's version of organic.
Beginning Oct. 21, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
will implement a set of national standards for the production, handling, and
processing of organically grown foods.
Organic: the Official Definition
In 1990, lawmakers passed the Organic Foods Production Act,
requiring the USDA to come up with uniform policies for such goods. The
directive came out of a concern that a number of private specialty companies
had inconsistently developed their own rules, leaving the public bewildered
about what's truly organic.
Government officials posted at least three versions of
guidelines on the Internet, soliciting comments from nearly 300,000 people.
Based on the feedback, the USDA came up with a set of regulations that describe
a certain process of growing and handling. These final standards, however, do
not make any claims as to whether organic products are safer, healthier, or
tastier than their non-organic counterparts.
A spokesperson says the agency tried to come up with a system
that was not so stringent that it would be very difficult for farmers and
manufacturers to convert to organic production, or so weak that the term
'organic' would be meaningless.
The standards, for instance, require that organic meats,
poultry, eggs, and dairy products must come from animals given no antibiotics
or growth hormones. Other organic foods must be produced without using
most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based or sewage sludge-based
fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.
Under the national rule, only foods that are 95-100% organic
may display the USDA Organic seal on the front packaging. Items that are
at least 70% organic may list such ingredients on the main panel, while
products that are less than 70% organic may not make any organic claims up
front, but may specify organically produced ingredients on the side panel.
Anyone who improperly sells or labels a product 'organic' can
be fined up to $10,000 for each violation.