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Do You Know What's Organic?

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

From the WebMD Archives

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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What to Do in the Meantime?

Until the guidelines are in place, Givens suggests that shoppers look for labels reading "certified organic." The term refers to produce meeting the production standards of one of 45 independent third-party programs that establish standards for organic products. To qualify, the vast majority of these programs require farmers to have used organic farming techniques, such as not using toxic pesticides and fertilizers, for at least three years. The programs mostly differ on how far organic fields must be from fields using conventional techniques.

"The label means that somebody has come into the facility and inspected it," Givens says.

Shoppers may also want to read labels and check the product for seals or symbols that indicate the produce complies with the government's general health and safety requirements.

Straightening Out the Public's Perception

Even when organic foods begin to carry official federal seals, it's doesn't mean that the foods are more nutritious, says Laurie Demerit of the market research firm The Hartman Group. Consumers mistakenly believe that organic-grown food provides more vitamins and minerals, while there is no scientific evidence that this is true, she says.

Several years ago, the firm found that people who bought organic produce and products did so to support an environmentally sensitive approach to farming. "Today they're saying it's better for their health and that of their kids," Demeritt says. "People seem to like the idea and the lifestyle of 'organic.' They're almost doing it as a social thing -- they want to be in that lifestyle niche."

The main reason to buy organic, Givens says, is to support the environment. "When people choose organic they're working to preserve water resources and prevent the kinds of agriculture-related problems that have started to pop up," she says. "Consumers can make a choice for a better environment."

The choice couldn't be more simple for Corrado. For her, it's a matter of watching her children thrive and grow, without having to worry about potentially hazardous chemicals.

Christine Cosgrove is a freelance writer who specializes in health and medical issues. She has worked as a reporter for UPI in New York City and as a senior editor at Parenting Magazine. She lives in Berkeley, California.

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