USDA Says What Is and Isn't Organic

Organic, Defined

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 27, 2002
From the WebMD Archives

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.

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."

Bruhn counters that organic foods can be produced using the same compounds as non-organic ones. The only difference, she says, is the source of the substance. "A particular chemical can be approved for organic if it is derived from a natural source," she explains. "That same chemical, when derived from a laboratory, is not approved. So how can one say that one is better for the environment than the other if the chemical is the same?"

Organic is merely a philosophy of growing something in partnership with nature, says Bruhn, adding that the new organic rule is good news for people who want to support that viewpoint.

On the other hand, Cummins says the current organic policies don't go far enough to address whether something is produced using fair labor and trade practices, or whether it is grown locally or regionally. "It's dangerous over time when you set minimum standards and you call them a ceiling," he says.

A full text of the government's national organic food standards can be found on the USDA Web site.

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