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USDA Says What Is and Isn't Organic

Organic, Defined
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Organic: the Official Definition continued...

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.

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."

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