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Organic, Defined

You're at the grocery store and need tomatoes. After selecting the red over the green kind, you see there is another choice to make: regular or organic?

Natalie Picone picks through the specialty produce, while her friend, Nicole Griffin, automatically reaches for the conventional brand. Both women are 30-something mothers of young children and both are concerned about healthy eating. Yet Natalie's basket brims with organic products, while Nicole's items are of the standard variety. Which of these women is doing the right thing?

Ask that question in a field of people convinced of the merits of either one, and you may as well have revived a decades-old food fight. Words such as pesticides, irradiation, and genetic engineering are thrown around, with each camp convinced of their advantages or evils.

But even controversies are more complex in today's world. In the pro-organic pasture, there have been debates on which agricultural methods are OK to use, and thus, on which produce and meats deserve the 'organic' label.

Natalie sums up the resulting confusion on the consumer end. "Unfortunately, unless I've grown it in my backyard, I'm not 100% sure that it's all organic," she says, noting that in her view, the term means grown naturally, with no chemicals whatsoever.

Yet the mother of two may have to modify her definition, if she wants to go along with Uncle Sam's version of organic.

Beginning Oct. 21, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will implement a set of national standards for the production, handling, and processing of organically grown foods.

Organic: the Official Definition

In 1990, lawmakers passed the Organic Foods Production Act, requiring the USDA to come up with uniform policies for such goods. The directive came out of a concern that a number of private specialty companies had inconsistently developed their own rules, leaving the public bewildered about what's truly organic.

Government officials posted at least three versions of guidelines on the Internet, soliciting comments from nearly 300,000 people. Based on the feedback, the USDA came up with a set of regulations that describe a certain process of growing and handling. These final standards, however, do not make any claims as to whether organic products are safer, healthier, or tastier than their non-organic counterparts.

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