Behind the Label

Disclaimer: I know this is long, but there’s a lot of organic ground to cover. Consider it a Sunday special, and read it at your leisure, or in chunks.

The USDA develops standards for labeling organic food, and products that contain at least 95% Organic Peanut Butter Labelorganic materials qualify for their organic seal. 70% organic ingredients allows manufacturers to say “made with organic products” on the label, and anything less occasions only an organic tag on the proper ingredients in the information panel. Tags like “all-natural” aren’t regulated. Sounds straightforward, and if you like shopping for organics with confidence in a label, stop reading right here. For an exercise in making tough decisions in the grocery, ask what the USDA means by the term “organic”. Now the fun will begin! They mean:

Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

Also, they

must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form.

More info on their organics regulations can be found here. So. “Not commercially available in organic form”, hunh? “Approved on the National List?”

It’s heartening that when the label says 100% Organic, it has to mean that (except for added water and salt). One-ingredient foods like vegetables are thus simple to buy “organic”. But the “Organic” USDA label doesn’t mean that the food doesn’t contain non-organic foods. According to the Seattle Times, the USDA has proposed a list of 38 approved non-organic foodstuffs allowed in foods labeled organic. Consumer advocates and organic food advocates are mad about this, of course. The USDA shouldn’t allow non-organic food into foods labeled organic. Truth-in-advertising laws seem to make that pretty clear: why not just let these foods be labeled the same way foods with 70-94% organic ingredients are? Why do they get 5% non-organic content “free”? Part of the reason these new “standards” are being pushed is because of the rise of large-scale organic farming: so many agribusinesses want a piece of the significant and growing organic action that they want to earn the organic label. Just, not always by actually farming completely organically, which would require transition costs and can offer a smaller yield (when compared to produce and animals hyped up on steroids and chemicals). For the sake of fairness, I’m going to try and imagine the valid reasons these agribusinessmen have for pushing weakened organic standards. 95% organic is better than 0% organic, and a favorable label allows their partially good efforts to reach a broader market place, which is nice for them. But they still don’t need to mislead consumers about what’s in their food. Farming, and the food produced by it, is either organic or it is not. Mostly organic stuff should be labeled as such.

The USDA group regulating these labels- the National Organics Program- has 9 staff members and a1.5 million dollar budget. An article from the NY Times explores the difficulty of an understaffed and under-budgeted program that controls standards for the 14 billion dollars of organic foods that consumers buy yearly.

One last wrinkle for today: What’s better, buying local, or buying organic? An article from culinate, a sustainable foodie magazine, discusses the growth of Big Organics, their impact on the the USDA labels and standards, and contends that foods should be judged not only by organic standards, but also by how far they come to you (ridding you of shipping guilt, and ensuring freshness). Maybe local is better all-around than organic, if you have to choose- supports small businesses, wastes less in shipping, and it can taste good (fresher, bumped around less). The British Organic industry is dealing with the import of organically farmed foods by air freight from other continents. African farmers who grow organic foods for international markets get paid better than they could otherwise, but the environmental cost of shipping would seem to negate the good qualities of the food in Britain. Africans are being encouraged to build up their own organic businesses for their home markets, but for now they can still ship their food to Britain.

Ok, now that organic labels are thoroughly confusing and the decision calculus of buying organic has been altered, how do we buy food? Is the paradigm of all-local, all-organic food- which would limit our access to things like pineapples and durians, and all fruits out of local season- the desirable outcome? Will the environmental cost of shipping food come down so that we may comfortably eat organics from exotic places? My head is spinning, but until I have better choices, the farmer’s market and local produce stores will have precedent over shipped organics, and shipped organics will take precedent over shipped non-organics. Thoughts on all this are welcome- does knowledge of the organic labeling change your organic decisions? Where do you find local and organic produce? Do the more lax 95% organic/5% non-organic- labeled as organic standards have any benefits for the consumer, or non-sneaky, non-lazy advantages for agribusinesses?

5 Responses to “Behind the Label”

  1. 1 millie October 28, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    I believe buying local produce in season would be one way to shop. It seems strawberries taste better right from the field in May rather than from the grocery store in November – and then strawberries are a treat. Picking more than enough for spring consumption, then freezing or making jam with the rest would allow you to know where those berries have been.
    So we are right now enjoying apples from Syria, VA – but we did not check to see if the orchards are organically maintained. In fact we don’t know what, if any pesticides have been sprayed on the apples. Your musings are making us more aware of some of the questions we need to ask about the food we eat and the products we buy.

    You’d be happy to know we refused a bag today at the store.

  2. 2 virescent October 29, 2007 at 10:46 pm

    The apples we picked at Carter Mountain near Charlottesville were coated in pesticides- they were so thick that the apples were pale and blotchy white. Tasted good after scrubbing and everything, but I don’t think I really want to go back and pick there because the gunk was so unappetizing.

    How does the berry farm near you fertilize its crops, do you know?

  3. 3 millie October 30, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    After some searching I found this information on the Berry Farm:

    “You can eat strawberries right out of the field, because we use integrated pest management, which means we let the beneficial bugs control the bad bugs,” she said, explaining the farm’s alternative to pesticides.
    Va Farm Bureau Federation Newsletter
    April 26, 2007

    I’m still looking for how they prepare the soil…

  4. 4 Cameron October 31, 2007 at 10:58 am

    The pseudo-hippie, non-hippie, lazy buyer, broke graduate student speaks a few words! Thanks for the break down in the organic labels! I actually did learn a lot about a topic I honestly didn’t care much about. Being a “non-meat eater” (I eat some seafood that ISN’T on the endangered over-fished lists), I think that the easiest way to decrease one’s environmental impact is to stop eating beef, lamb, sheep, bison, horse, and any other grazing animal allllll together! The amount of energy and land it takes to raise a cow, if converted back into the plant material, time energy and resources to grow the cow, is enough to feed 10 people and save 2,500 to 5,000 gallons of water (according to the newest findings by Union of Concerned Scientists)! If you believe that mistreating animals while they are being raised is a problem, then I’d also skip eating poultry all together!

    Now back to the issue at hand (that was the pseudo-hippie part….now on to the non-hippie part)! Being a scientists, I think that GMO is a non-issue. Agriculturist have been picking the seeds of the most healthy and most tasty fruits and crossing them (breeding them) with the other best seeds, to make the strongest and best plants possible, since agriculture began! Science has speed up this process (going a little to far in some case….Wiki Monsanto), but in general I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is spraying lettuce, cherry and grape fields while immigrant workers are picking in them. I also have a problem with pesticides finding their way into ground water, and over use of antibiotics in raising live-stock that lead to “supper bugs” that are now resistant to antibiotics finding their way onto my spinach and killing me while I was trying to enjoy my “vegetarian” salad! If buying organic can decrease these variables, then Im all for it; but I don’t particularly have a problem with “safe pesticide spraying” (low density, targeted, applied by individuals in protective gear, and not sprayed onto migrant farm workers or leaching into my water)!

    Now the lazy and poor graduate student! Organic is to expensive…..I can buy 1 organic head of lettuce, or all the ingrediats to form a salad (non-organically)!! I think now is when my head explodes!!!!


  5. 5 virescent October 31, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    Ha, I know how you feel. Buying organic in NYC is a good way to get had, it seems. Are there any more reasonable farmers markets about? Someplace easy to get to (you know, within 3 blocks of you ;-))? Some groups will let you order a set amount of food directly from a farmer every week, too- A community-supported agriculture cooperative? This culinate article explains it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Email Me @ (at )

RSS Photo Albums

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

Blog Stats

  • 47,775 hits

Unless otherwise indicated, all content and photos posted on this site are generated by me. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

%d bloggers like this: