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Organic, and They Mean It

Food* Products that meet strict federal criteria will qualify for a special USDA label. Until now, regulations have varied from state to state.

October 07, 2002|LINDA MARSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shoppers who want to buy organic foods can be bewildered by the labels' often fuzzy claims, and may even suspect that the edibles they're paying a premium for aren't truly pesticide- or hormone-free. After all, terms such as "organically produced," "pesticide free," "100% natural," or even "certified organic" aren't guarantees of purity.

But new government-approved labels, which will debut in two weeks, should eliminate some of that guesswork. Under the guidelines, foods must meet strict U.S. Department of Agriculture production criteria to be identified as "organic," and only products that contain 95% or more organic food can carry the USDA organic logo.

Previously, private certifying agencies and a patchwork of regulations, which varied by state, determined which products could claim to be organic. Some standards were more lax than others. Consequently, consumers had no assurances what labels meant.

"Anyone could slap on the word 'organic' and hike up the price," said Barbara C. Robinson, the USDA official in Washington, D.C., who is overseeing this program. "Now standards are uniform nationwide, and consumers know what they're getting. It helps the organic food industry too, because now they know exactly what to do."

After 10 years of intense debate among organic growers and retailers, conventional farmers, consumers, environmentalists and animal rights activists, the USDA has created four organic categories: 100% organic, organic, made with organic ingredients and, for those products with less than 70% organic ingredients, a simple listing of the organic items in the ingredient panel.

But the USDA's definition of "organic" goes beyond defining whether or not the food has been sprayed with chemicals. The organic label can't be used on products made with genetically modified ingredients, synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides, or sewage sludge, which is sterilized waste that can contain heavy metals like lead and mercury. Nor can it be used on products that have been irradiated, a process in which radiation is used to kill germs.

Consumers still must wrestle with some confusion in the health food aisle. Terms such as "free-range," "hormone-free" and "natural" may still appear on foods, but they haven't been certified by the government.

For a product to carry the 100% organic label, an organic grower must prove to an independent certifying agent that the farm has been chemical-free for at least three years.

Chickens, for instance, can't be given growth hormones or antibiotics, and must be fed only organic feed. Every step in the production process, such as that by manufacturers and handlers, must also be certified as organic.

Although the rules take effect Oct. 21, consumers may still find some products with the old labeling system on the shelves. To determine whether the package adheres to the new regulations, look for the USDA logo (which will appear for the "100% organic" and "organic" categories) or for the stamp of the inspector that certified the product as organic.

"These regulations level the playing field," says Barbara Haumann of the Organic Trade Assn. in Greenfield, Mass., which represents organic growers, manufacturers and retailers. Now everyone has to abide by the same rules, she says.

Violators making false claims will be fined $10,000 per offense. The USDA will depend on a network of independent inspectors, state agricultural agents, and on self-policing within the organic foods industry to catch offenders. "It's not easy to get an organic designation," says the USDA's Robinson. "Because this is competitive, you're going to call if you think someone else is cheating. The folks who are doing this legitimately are our eyes and ears."

Still, some experts worry that the new organic labels will create even more confusion among consumers, who may erroneously assume the government seal means the products are better in quality or more nutritious. "All the labels mean is that the food is grown or processed in a different way, not that it's safer or healthier," says Regina Hildwine, senior director of food labeling and standards with the National Food Processors Assn., an industry trade group in Washington, D.C.

Of course, heirloom tomatoes sun-ripened at local farms tend to be more flavorful than those picked early and shipped across the country. And the notion of eating veggies that haven't been sprayed with pesticides that contaminate the ground water, or drinking milk from cows who haven't dined on hormones or antibiotics, may be appealing, says Molly Anderson, an ecologist and director of the Tufts Institute of the Environment in Medford, Mass. But scientific evidence that they're better for you "is inconclusive," she said.

Although conventionally produced fruits and vegetables, for instance, may have more pesticide residues on their skin than organically grown produce, the levels on all produce fall within legally safe amounts, Anderson said.

"Organic is better for consumers if you look at the big picture, because it's better for the environment," says Anderson. "You may pay a little more at the supermarket, but look at it as a down payment on the quality of life that your kids will enjoy."

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