From farm to home, many critical factors weigh on that increasingly important term.
By Linda Melone
The term “organic” conjures up visions of pastoral farms and sun-kissed fruits and vegetables grown by caring farmers. For many, this ideal makes it easier to drive an hour to the nearest health-conscious market. But how much of that vision is fiction versus reality? Is natural beef as good as organic? What’s behind the USDA Organic label? These questions are becoming more relevant as a growing number of people make organic products their mainstay.
Behind the Organic Label
The sales growth of organic foods tops that of all other food and beverage sales. US sales of organic food and beverages comprised roughly 2.8% of all food sales in 2006 at $17.7 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association, up 21% from 2005. Organic non-food sales, such as textiles, personal care products, toys and pet foods, grew 26% in 2006. More availability of organic products and greater consumer awareness has driven these increases.
Within the past 30 years organic has grown from a small-farm movement to a major industry in which organic foods and products can be found on the shelves of major retailers. “Organic is becoming much more sophisticated,” says Carl Winter, PhD, on the faculty at the University of California Davis’ Foodsafe Program. “But this greater demand also means that organic food is not necessarily local anymore.”
Producing a product good enough to earn the USDA Organic label isn’t easy. Farmers and growers must meet strict government standards. In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), which required the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organically produced products. The OFPA and the National Organic Program regulations require farms or handling operations to be certified by a state or private entity accredited by the USDA.
“Organic products cost more money to produce and yields are not as high,” says Winter. “Organic farms must be open to yearly inspections. It’s difficult because you can have all the right ideas and use state-of-the-art organic practices, but if you cannot stay economically viable, you’re not going to manage.”
Government regulations determine ways in which agricultural products are grown and processed. Organic production requires a system of farming that excludes toxic pesticides and fertilizers to maintain and replenish the soil. Genetic engineering, cloning, irradiation and sewage sludge are prohibited.
“Generally, a farmer has to shun traditional technology,” says Mark A. Kastel, co-director and senior farm policy analyst for the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute (www.cornucopia.
org), an independent watchdog organization that monitors and promotes ecologically produced local and organic food. Produce must be grown on ground that has been free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop. “So all the food for livestock is also free of chemical additives,” says Kastel. Organically raised livestock must have access
to the outdoors and be free of antibiotics and growth hormones. “If the livestock become
sick, farmers can’t treat them with antibiotics,” says Kastel.
“So the animals are naturally treated more humanely.”
Labeling criteria of organic products are based on the percentage of organic ingredients they contain. For example, products labeled “100% organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients. An “organic” label indicates a product consisting of at least 95% organically-produced ingredients; “made with organic ingredients” denotes processed products containing a minimum of 70% organic ingredients. A soup made with 70% organic ingredients and only organic vegetables, for example, cannot use the USDA seal but may be labeled “made with organic vegetables.”
On the other hand, a product labeled “natural,” like “natural beef,” indicates no chemical additives have been added after the animal is slaughtered. It does not, however, restrict additives used beforehand. The animal can be pumped full of hormones, grown on a farm with pesticides, herbicides and toxic fertilizers, and still display a “natural” label, says Kastel. “A cow eating genetically engineered corn can be labeled ‘natural beef’ if no additive was added after packaging. ‘Natural’ beef is profoundly different from organically grown beef.”
The Price of Non-Compliance
Not all organic farms are subject to USDA inspection and certification. Small producers selling less than $5,000 a year of organic agricultural products are exempt. If the company abides by USDA standards, they may label their products organic but cannot display the USDA Organic seal. Restaurants, grocery stores and retailers also do not have to be certified.
Trying to sell non-organic products as organic, however, carries a stiff fine. Anyone who knowingly sells or labels a product as organic that does not meet the standards of the National Organic Program regulations can be fined up to $11,000 for each offense. Or, as in the highly publicized case of Promiseland Livestock, LLC, the company may be suspended from organic commerce altogether.
“There’s nothing wrong with being big and organic, but it must be done right,” said Kastel of Cornucopia. “The vast majority of organic farmers and brands work with high integrity. We make sure the ethical participants in this industry are not placed at a competitive disadvantage—and that consumers aren’t taken advantage of.”
Promiseland, which Kastel’s organization helped bring to justice, is a good example. After nearly four years of investigations, Promiseland Livestock, LLC, a multimillion-dollar operation with facilities in Nebraska and Missouri, was suspended—along with the owner and key employees—from organic commerce for numerous improprieties. Promiseland’s operations include 13,000 acres of crop land and 22,000 head of beef and dairy cattle. Legal complaints included not feeding organic grain to cattle, selling fraudulent organic feed and classifying conventional cattle as organic.
If sales are any indication, the popularity of organic foods will only continue to grow. But is organic worth its premium price? “It’s an individual decision—what value do you put on organic?” says Kelly Morrow, MS, RD, assistant professor and nutrition clinic coordinator at Bastyr University’s department of nutrition and exercise science.
Nutritionally, the benefits of organic produce versus conventional produce are still being researched. “If you’re just looking at the hard science comparing industrial organic products—huge organic farms that don’t rotate their crops as much as the smaller farms—to conventionally grown food, you probably won’t find a big nutrient difference,” says Morrow. “But overall, an organic product likely contains more trace minerals and bioactive compounds.”
One way to ease into organic if you’re on a budget: Buy organic versions of the fruits and vegetables highest in pesticides. The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org), a Washington-based non-profit consumer protection organization, has published a list they call the Dirty Dozen—12 fruits and vegetables with the greatest chances of being contaminated by pesticides. In order from highest to lowest levels, the list includes: peaches, apples, sweet bell pepper, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, grapes (those that are imported), carrots and pears. And to rid conventionally grown produce of pesticides, rinse them in a vinegar solution. “The acetic acid in vinegar helps break up the fat-based chemicals,” says Morrow.
Reasons to buy organic go beyond nutritional considerations. Choosing conventionally grown products has consequences for the environment and the people involved in the process, says Louisa Shafia, chef and author of Lucid Food (Ten Speed Press). “Bananas are a good example,” says Shafia. “They’re grown with a huge amount of pesticides and fertilizers and workers are then exposed to the chemicals. Plus, the long food miles they travel create a lot of emissions and use a lot of fossil fuel.” Sugar, chocolate and coffee spark similar concerns. “Slave labor issues are also a concern in sugar and chocolate production,” says Shafia.
Buying organic textiles also helps the workers producing the products. “Cotton per acre has the highest pesticide rate,” says Kastel. “As a result, the people producing these products have high levels of cancer and disease. By buying organic linens and towels you’re doing something good for the earth and for the people who produce the products.”
Shafia recommends finding alternatives to imported produce. “Instead of bananas, buy and cook locally grown pumpkin and squash,” she suggests. “In place of sugar use local honey, which may help boost your immunity to local pollens at the same time you’re supporting local growers.” Other sugar alternatives include brown rice syrup, date sugar, maple sugar and stevia, a natural sweetener. “Buy fair-trade option coffee and chocolate with 100% traceability,” suggests Shafia, referring to the ability to verify the product’s origin. Get to know your local farmer and ask questions. “Everything we do is linked to the health of the environment,” says Shafia. “It’s important to know where your food comes from and how it was brought to your table.”