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Organic: What does that mean?

Author: Loring A. Windblad

This compilation of information is Copyright 2005 by and Loring Windblad. This article may be freely copied and used on other web sites only if it is copied complete with all links and text, including this header, intact and unchanged except for minor improvements such as misspellings and typos.

I stopped by the local Safeway store yesterday (23 Mar 05) and among other items picked up a quart of milk. I couldn’t help noticing a new item on the shelf – “organic” skim milk in 2-quart bottles. Regular price for regular skim milk $3.19 and the new “organic’ skim milk was $4.99. So I carefully checked the label. Hah! No information, absolutely nothing, indicating why or how it was organic, whether it was certified or not, what standards it complied with to be “organic” – nada, zilch, a big fat ZERO.

So what we have here is a “claim” of “organic” backed up by nothing! I started wondering and got right onto the Internet to do a little research. Here’s what I came up with.

Back in 2000 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) got the results of a poll: “A new poll, conducted by International Communications Research (ICR) of Media, PA on behalf of the National Center for Public Policy Research, finds the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) proposed rules for labeling organic food products will seriously mislead consumers into thinking the products are safer, better in quality or more nutritious.”

So what were the results of this survey? The ICR found that “two-thirds of the public would be misled by the proposed USDA seal on several key issues: ‘68 percent said they would interpret a product labeled ‘USDA Certified Organic’ to be safer to eat than non-organic foods’; ‘67 percent believed ‘USDA Certified Organic’ to be better than non-organic foods; and, ‘62 percent believe "USDA Certified Organic" to be healthier for consumers than non-organic foods’.”

So just what does this mean to me, the consumer public. Well, here’s what it said: “According to both the USDA and the leadership of the $6 billion organic industry, organic certification is only an accreditation of production methods used by farmers and not an assurance of food safety, quality, nutrition or health. USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, in announcing the proposed rules, stated that the USDA organic certification does not mean food labeled organic is ‘superior, safer or more healthy than conventional food’.”

Further, Katherine DiMatteo, the Director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), in a recent interview on 20/20, stated that organic products are neither safer nor more nutritious than other foods. She noted particularly that "Organic agriculture is not particularly a food safety claim. That's not what our standards are about."

And, in another national consumer poll the results were “seven out of ten (69 percent) said the USDA label would imply these products are better for the environment and four out of ten (43 percent) believe these would be more nutritious. In fact, the label provided no information on either of these qualities.”

WOW! So, then, just what is all the hoohaw over “organic” all about? Just what kinds of laws and regulations and/or guidelines on “being organic” are we protected by? As it turns out, not very much. Taken right out of the report, we have: “The proposed USDA rules, developed in response to the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, are to help consumers distinguish products grown using national standards for organic production methods. Today, no national standards exist, and, according to the Organic Trade Association, as much as 50 percent of all foods sold as organic lack any certification on which consumers can rely to inform their purchase choice.”

And just what is the toll on our pocketbooks for all of “this food that may or may not be better than the products we normally use, but probably isn’t better”? Well, putting the “organic” label on your food (see my opening comment about the milk) simply doesn’t mean anything except that you can charge a higher price for the product. How much higher? Typical markups for “organic” products run from 50% to 200% above similar products which are not claimed as “organic”.

But, remember that the above information is dated 2000. This is 2005 and there are now some rather severe restrictions on the use of the words “natural”, “organic” and “certified organic”. To even claim to be organic you must now comply with an entire list of USDA (and sub-agencies) qualifications. You must also “provably” be at a minimum 70% organic. And if you claim “certification” you must display the USDA Seal or drop the claim. OK – but after acceptance by the USDA you need to wait 18 months until the seal is authorized! You must also clearly label your product as to manufacturer and address.

Did you get that? At least 70% organic! How about I pour you a drink that’s 71% good organic orange juice and 29% poison. Well, according to the USDA standards, I can call this “organic” – but how organic is it if the other 29% – nearly a third – will kill you? Let’s say I make a product that is provably 98% organic and only 2% manufactured from products grown using ceptic tank treated residues as fertilizer. Just what does 2% potential poison mixed with 98% really good stuff make the resultant 100% product? Judge for yourself.

Whoa! Hold on just a second here. How about the newer regulations. You want to get USDA certification now? Once you do you’ve gotta wait 18 months before you can either claim it or display the USDA Certified Seal. The rules are getting into place to protect us consumers, slowly but surely. But we all need to be aware of just what is going on.

Let me close this article with a small personal advisory. If it says “organic” and there is nothing on that label to “prove the organic claim”, run as fast as you can to some other product. The survey above clearly indicates there is big trouble ahead for consumers and the “organic” labeling. But, even if it does say “organic” and does hold appropriate certification, there is really no evidence that it is healthier, better for you, more nutritious – only that it will cost at least approximately double what your regular “non-organic” product will cost.

About the Author

Loring Windblad has studied nutrition and exercise for more than 40 years, is a published author and freelance writer. His latest business endeavor is at

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