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 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.
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?