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'Organic' on the Label? Read Very Carefully

September 04, 2000|Phil Lempert

Are organic food products really better?

That question was at the heart of a controversy involving ABC News "20/20" correspondent John Stossel, who last month issued an embarrassing on-air apology for inaccuracies in a Feb. 4 report that questioned the safety of organic food. Stossel conceded that contrary to his report, ABC had no evidence that organic produce was unsafe. In fact, he said, organics are "remarkably safe"--and just as safe as conventional produce.

But the question about the value of organic food is still a smart one to ask. Especially as Americans are buying and consuming more organic foods--and paying more for them.

Before we begin answering that question, it's critical to understand some of the basics, like, what does organic mean?

The definition is not a simple one, and that's why many consumers who bother to read labels on organic products are confused. Organic products should not contain or come in contact with toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Moreover, organics should not be genetically modified, irradiated or produced with sewage sludge. Organic production methods are designed to keep our air, soil and water as clean and pure as possible.

In supermarkets and health food stores, you'll find three types of organic designations: "certified organic," "grown in accordance with" (California organic standards), and products that simply label themselves "organic." According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, there are about 2,500 organic growers and other organizations registered. Only half of those, however, have met certification requirements. So it is important to know what you are buying.

"Certified organic" is the gold standard for such products. It means that the product has been grown and processed according to strict organic standards: for example, apples that have been grown in soil free of pesticides for at least three years, have not been genetically modified and are not sprayed with synthetic pesticides or herbicides. Certification also mandates yearly on-site inspections.

"Grown in accordance with" simply means that the grower or processor has promised to follow all organic production regulations in their state.

Products that merely say "organic" on the label, without any further detail, are waving a red flag. Consumers should question the claims and seek out more information, if possible.

Before you get those definitions straight, be aware that the federal government is preparing to revamp the organic food categories, probably within six months. It is expected that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will approve four "organic" labels for packaging:

* "100% organic," for products that contain all organically produced ingredients.

* "Organic," for products in which at least 95% of the ingredients are organically produced, have not been genetically modified or irradiated, and are not produced with sewage sludge. (Some conventional crops, such as corn or small grains used for cattle feed, are irrigated or fertilized with reclaimed water and sludge.)

* "Made with organic," for products in which 50% to 95% of the content is organic.

* And for products containing less than 50% organic content, those ingredients can only be listed on the label. (For more details on the proposed regulations, go to the USDA's Web site:

If you are already buying organic products, you probably know that they can be more expensive: A 1999 survey by Consumer Reports magazine found that, on average, organic produce cost 57% more than conventionally produced foods.

If you think the extra cost is worth it, in part, because organic products provide a bigger nutritional punch, you might want to reconsider. All types of organic food have about the same nutritional value as non-organic foods, according to Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Assn.

But there is an important caveat to that generalization. Organic produce typically is sold close to where it is grown. (Because organics do not contain preservatives, it is harder to ship them long distances.) Conventional produce is usually picked green from the field and ripens during transport to markets across the country.

Some devotees argue that, therefore, organic produce is more nutritious because it ripens in the field. And the USDA says that vine-ripening may indeed maximize the phytochemical nutrient content of produce.

What about the idea that organic products are pesticide-free? Generally true, but remember that as hard as a farmer might try to keep his produce pure, there is always the risk of wind-borne pesticide contamination from nearby non-organic farms. The EPA tolerance level for pesticides is 5%, and both the current and proposed regulations prohibit the "organic" label on any crops found above that level.

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