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Do You Know What's Organic?

The Federal Government is taking steps to make sure you do.
WebMD Feature

March 23, 2000 (Berkeley, Calif.) -- For Linda Corrado, stepping into Manhattan's Agata & Valentina gourmet food store used to be a field day. Fresh purple potatoes, crook-necked yellow squash, and fruits and vegetables of every sort screamed for her attention. Aromas of fresh focaccia and marzipan fruit tarts wafting by her nose lured her in. And the plentiful samples of everything from salty Greek olives to crunchy French cornichons tempted and tingled her palate.

But things are different for the 31-year-old Manhattan resident now that she's a mother of two. Corrado's food choices are no longer ruled by mere taste or momentary cravings. Overpowering is her maternal duty to provide healthy food for her children. To her, that means ensuring that the produce she buys is organically grown.

"I really buy organics for Giulietta," Corrado says, referring to her two-year-old daughter. "When I choose organics, I'm making a decision for her health."

That decision could become easier now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has unveiled a set of guidelines intended to instill some law and order in the loosely regulated organic produce industry. The new guidelines aim to assure consumers like Corrado that the organic produce they select has indeed been grown without toxic pesticides or herbicides, synthetic fertilizer, and hormones.

Produce grown from genetically engineered seeds and sewage sludge fertilizer and those that are irradiated would also not qualify as organic. It's a chemical-free approach to farming, one that has caused the fast-growing industry to boast yearly sales in the billions.

The growth has, in part, leaned on consumers' assumptions that organic produce is "more healthy" and that it's wholly free of disease-causing pesticides and herbicides. Unfortunately, such confidence has been misplaced, says Holly Givens, a spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association. While tests have shown that most organic fruits and vegetables have lower levels of synthetic pesticides, they still show some contamination, either from chemicals seeping in from previously contaminated soil, blown in from adjacent fields, or from contaminated rainwater.

The new proposal can't "control the wind and the rain," Givens says. It could, however, put to rest any questions people like Corrado have about what they're getting for the extra money they're shelling out.

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