The Healthy Shopper
By Bob Gaydos
The most important information on food product labels is in the fine print of the ingredients rather than in the big, splashy words used to sell the product. That has always been the case and today it’s truer than ever. With major food companies trying to capitalize on the growing interest in eating healthfully, it is increasingly important for consumers to know what the words on the product really mean.
This series has discussed food labeled “gluten-free” and “natural” and the confusion built into such labeling by companies taking advantage of what many describe as nebulous FDA regulations.
Confusion also exists about the term “organic,” even though it has been around for a long time. In fact, until around the 1920s, all farming was organic, with farmers using strictly natural methods to treat the soil and to fight pests. With the introduction of industrialized farming -- notably the development of DDT after World War II as a means to control pests -- the widespread use of chemicals became the rule and organic farming the exception.
But today, DDT is banned and more than 40 million Americans say they buy organic food. Sales last year topped $40 billion, according to the Organic Food Industry, and the organic movement is growing steadily. Still, millions of shoppers remain unclear about why those products in specially designated sections of the supermarket are different from the rest. What makes them “organic” and why does it matter?
In this case, there is at least no official confusion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has set specific standards for food to be certified “organic.” Producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods are exempt from certification, but are still required to follow the USDA's standards for organic foods.
- Prohibit the use of chemical fertilizers, synthetic substances, irradiation, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in production.
- Prohibit the use of antibiotics and synthetic hormones in organic meat and poultry.
- Require 100 percent organic feed for organic livestock.
The USDA currently allows foods that are “100 percent certified organic” (fruits, vegetables, eggs) to display the green USDA Organic seal. Use of the seal is voluntary, but its presence is key. It means the producing farm has passed muster from a trained inspector.
Food products that contain more than one ingredient (cereal, for example) may also use the seal if 95 percent of the ingredients are organic. Then the product may be labeled “organic.”
Products made with 70 to 94 percent organic ingredients may not use the USDA seal, but may say “made with organic ingredients.”
Whatever the percentage of organic food ingredients -- whether the product is labeled “100% organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic ingredients” -- none of the ingredients may be produced from genetically modified organisms. That means products “made with organic ingredients,” while only requiring 70 percent of the ingredients to be organic, must nonetheless be 100 percent non-GMO.
This is a key regulation today, with a major debate under way in Congress and many state legislatures on whether to require food producers to list genetically modified organisms on the label. That’s the subject of a future article.
It should also be noted that it’s not just a desire to avoid food that has been produced with the aid of chemicals that motivates many consumers today. Increasingly, more Americans are buying locally produced foods. The fruits, vegetables, eggs, beef, etc. go directly from local farm to local supermarket or kitchen table. This offers fresher foods while also using less fossil fuel for transportation. And the money spent at a local farmers market is more likely to stay in the community. A win/win/win situation.
But again, the key is to check for the green label. Not all food sold at farm stands or farmers’ markets is organically grown. If no label is shown and the vendor is advertising “organic” produce, ask to see the certification. It should be no problem.
Some people question whether eating organic is worth the added difference in price (largely a result of the government’s heavy subsidization of the conventional food system). That’s a personal decision. The goal of this series is to provide information to help shoppers make more-informed decisions on what they buy and what they eat.
In that regard, the facts are that: 1) food certified as organic must meet strict, transparent government standards (no chemicals, no hormones, no antibiotics, etc.); 2) more consumers are choosing to buy organic food every year; and 3) price is becoming less of a factor in making that decision.
Next: The debate over GMOs.
Organic produce sections are growing steadily in supermarkets.
Photo by Bob Gaydos
A common perception among consumers is that organic farming is old school. Basic stuff. No artificial ingredients. Period.
Not really, says Liana Hoodes. “Organic farming today is definitely not your grandfather’s organic farming," says Hoodes. She says organic farmers today are using computers, new technology and new techniques to improve the quantity and quality of their products. She only wishes the USDA would provide more than 2 percent of its funds for research to speed the development of 21st Century organic farming.
Hoodes, of Pine Bush, is policy adviser to the Northeast Organic Farming Association and to the National Organic Coalition, an organization she helped found and which she served for years as executive director. The NOC is both an advocate for and a watchdog to protect the integrity of organic farming. NOFA certifies organic farmers.
Certification does not come easily. A farmer must lay out a plan, with maps of every field, every year. Crops must be rotated. Changes must be noted. Materials used must be USDA-approved. A yearly inspection by an independent inspector must be passed.
Hoodes says there’s not a lot of cheating going on among farmers looking to get the green USDA seal and the inspectors are good at spotting those few who do try. For example, an inspector might see some blue barrels tucked behind a barn, the kind of barrels chemicals come in. Or, the cows at a dairy farm may not look so healthy. A request to use the bathroom in the house provides an opportunity to discover antibiotics prescribed by a veterinarian, obviously not intended for humans and prohibited for organic cattle.
Even on non-scheduled inspection days, the farms are under scrutiny. One inspector wondered how a field full of weeds could produce so many organic tomatoes. A surprise check of the property revealed the “farmer” was buying boxes of tomatoes at the supermarket and selling them as organic.
While such behavior may be uncommon among organic farmers, a food industry that promotes itself as imposing strict, transparent standards needs to live by those standards. That’s why the USDA seal is stressed by organic producers.