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USDA Says What Is and Isn't Organic

Organic, Defined

Rules or No Rules, the Debate Rages On

Natalie is pleased that Uncle Sam has come up with uniform standards for organic foods. Even with the understanding that organic products may contain some pesticides, she still prefers the specialty items to the conventional ones.

"There has been some cancer, childhood autism, and Asperger's Syndrome in our family," she explains. "I just wonder if it might not be linked to all the preservatives [in regular products]."

Her concern strikes at the root of a longstanding dispute over whether eating organic is better for people and the environment.

Christine Bruhn, PhD, a food science expert with the Institute of Food Technologists, says at least 60% of consumers believe that organics are safer, more nutritious, and better for the environment. To her knowledge, however, there are no valid scientific data to back up those beliefs.

Yet, Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, points to what he says are thousands of consumer reports showing that regular products have three to four times more pesticide residue compared with organic items. The pesticide use, he claims, is not only harmful to the soil used for crops, but dangerous for people. "Every fourth time a child reaches for a conventional apple in America," he says, "they're getting a level of pesticide residue that even the EPA finds troublesome."

Bruhn counters that organic foods can be produced using the same compounds as non-organic ones. The only difference, she says, is the source of the substance. "A particular chemical can be approved for organic if it is derived from a natural source," she explains. "That same chemical, when derived from a laboratory, is not approved. So how can one say that one is better for the environment than the other if the chemical is the same?"

Organic is merely a philosophy of growing something in partnership with nature, says Bruhn, adding that the new organic rule is good news for people who want to support that viewpoint.

On the other hand, Cummins says the current organic policies don't go far enough to address whether something is produced using fair labor and trade practices, or whether it is grown locally or regionally. "It's dangerous over time when you set minimum standards and you call them a ceiling," he says.

A full text of the government's national organic food standards can be found on the USDA Web site.

Reviewed on September 27, 2002

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