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What Qualifies as Organic?

Before October 2002, states followed varying rules for certifying and labeling organic products. But now all organic foods are grown and processed according to strict national standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

To meet these standards, organic crops must be produced without conventional pesticides (including herbicides), synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Organically raised animals must be given organic feed and kept free of growth hormones and antibiotics. Organic farm animals must have access to the outdoors, including pastureland for grazing.

If a food has a "USDA organic" label, it contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients, and a government-approved expert has inspected the farm where it was produced to make sure the farmer follows USDA requirements.

"Before the standards went into effect, you never knew what you were getting," says Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD, director of nutrition for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic. "My comment to people always used to be, 'Buyer beware,' so I'm thrilled that now we as consumers can be confident that when we buy something organic, it really does adhere to certain established standards."

Is Organic Food Safer?

"If you're talking about pesticides, the evidence is pretty conclusive. Your chances of getting pesticide residues are much less with organic food," says John Reganold, professor of soil science at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash.

Reganold points to a large-scale study done by the Consumers Union. Researchers looked at data from more than 94,000 food samples and 20 different crops. They found that organically grown crops consistently had about one-third as many pesticide residues as the conventionally grown versions. Organic foods also were far less likely to contain residues of more than one pesticide.

Even so, the amount of man-made pesticide residues found in conventional foods is still well below the level that the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed unsafe. The real issue is whether these small doses, over years and decades, might add up to an increased health risk down the line.

"Is it going to make a difference? I don't know," says Reganold. "But it's something to think about, and we're the guinea pigs."

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