Organic standards take effect

October 23, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Absent particulars, the word organic on a food label suggests sundry meanings: natural, perhaps, or wholesome or healthy. Who knows? Shoppers seeking the reassurance of "organic" products would have to make a leap of faith - until now.

More than 10 years after the effort began, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week puts into effect national rules governing what food may be labeled organic, replacing a hodgepodge of state and private certification standards. The rules governing all aspects of food production and processing effectively codify notions about earth-friendly farming that have been commonly associated with the American counterculture since the early 1970s.

"There is one standard of what organic means," says Margaret Wittenberg of Whole Foods Markets in Austin, Texas, who worked on creating the new rules. "It brings a peace of mind" to anyone wanting to choose organic products.

To label their products organic, producers will have to eschew genetic engineering, pesticides, antibiotics or hormones. The rules require humane treatment of animals and farming practices that conserve the soil.

Manufacturers who have been certified and who choose to label their foods may start to identify their products under three main categories:

100 percent organic, meaning all the ingredients were produced in a way that qualifies as organic.

Organic, meaning 95 percent of the ingredients are certified organic and the other 5 percent are on a list also included in the rules and produced under specified conditions.

Made with organic ingredients, meaning the product contains 70 percent to 94 percent organic ingredients.

On products that are less than 70 percent organic, the manufacturer may list the organic ingredients on the ingredients panel - organic wheat, for example - but cannot use a separate label designating the product as organic. In any case, use of labels is voluntary.

The USDA has issued a new green organic seal, but these can be used only on products that are at least 95 percent organic. The rules create a $10,000 penalty for willful misuse of organic labels and designate agencies in each state to perform annual certifications. In Maryland, for example, the state Department of Agriculture will inspect producers and issue certifications.

"It's definitely a truth-in-labeling" rule, says Wittenberg, Whole Foods vice president for government and public affairs, comparing this development to the advent of nutrition information labels in 1994.

The USDA has made clear the new standards are not a food-safety program. While the environmental benefits of organic farming have been established, organic food is not necessarily more healthful, nutritious or safe. One Danish study, for example, has found that organic chickens were more likely than conventionally raised chickens to carry a microorganism that can cause severe diarrhea.

Along with reducing confusion for the consumer, the new rules promise to expand demand for organic products, says Katherine DiMatteo, director of the Organic Trades Association, which represents organic-food businesses in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

"We're looking forward to it with great anticipation," says DiMatteo, who says she hopes to see organic crops grow beyond the less than 1 percent of the U.S. total that they now occupy.

Organic food and beverages make up between 1 percent and 2 percent of the country's $517 billion grocery industry. The organic share of the total has been growing by about 20 percent a year the last few years and is expected to reach $20 billion by 2005, says Kelly Shea, director of organic agriculture for Horizon Organic, the country's largest organic-food producer.

Shea, whose company sells 70 percent of the organic milk sold in the United States, considers the USDA standards "some of the strictest and most stringent standards in the world today," governing everything from care and feeding of farm animals to the use of genetically modified feed.

The rules are a good start, but they don't go far enough, says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit group formed in 1998 to resist what Cummins considers the USDA's attempt to weaken these rules.

On the one hand, Cummins considers the new standards "a tremendous victory for organic consumers." On the other, he considers them "minimum standards" that do not allow producers who exceed the requirements to label their products accordingly.

Cummins considers the regulations not strict enough on confinement of farm animals, and points out that they say nothing about working conditions and wages of farm workers producing organic foods. While these standards fall short of European rules, which do cover these areas, Cummins considers this a boost to the industry.

"This is definitely grounds for celebration," he says.

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