October 17, 2007

A Field Guide to Buying Organic

From "A Field Guide to Buying Organic" by Luddene Perry & Dan Schultz
Posted by: DailyOM
Organics 101

It’s easy to overlook the miracle of the modern American supermarket and the complex industry that feeds us. Every week we stroll through brightly lit aisles, surrounded by the least expensive and most abundant food supply in the world, dropping items into a cart without much thought about where it all comes from.1 Shopping for sustenance is natural to us, and we rarely stop to
consider the vast industrial network that allows us this luxury.

Americans’ lack of connection to food production is understandable. In 1900 farmers made up 38 percent of the country’s workforce.2 Today that figure is less than 2 percent, and the closest most of us get to a farm is driving past fields at seventy miles per hour.3 The fact that only a small number of people produce enough food to supply each man, woman, and child in the United States with more than 3,500 calories per day is testament to the incredible efficiency of industrial agriculture. Americans never have to worry about finding store shelves empty. We simply buy what we want and eat it.

Because our system of food distribution separates us from the soil, we experience food as colorful packages bagged in paper or plastic. It’s hard to imagine the people, places, and processes that make it all possible. In some cases–our meat supply, for example–we exercise a willful ignorance and would just as soon avoid the grisly, gristly details. We prefer to think about happy cows on milk cartons, playful cereal box tigers, and friendly green giants on cans.

Even when we do allow ourselves a thought about the variety and quantity of food available to us, our curiosity collapses under the weight of production statistics that we cannot readily comprehend–a direct result of the progress made in the last century. Just one hundred years ago–when almost half the population was either growing crops, gathering eggs, or milking cows–the average life-span in the United States was shorter by twenty-seven years,4 and a much greater percentage of people died or became ill from food-related problems.

But this progress has exacted considerable costs. The industrialization of agriculture (and of culture in general), while improving our lives in many ways, also separates us from the source of our sustenance–the soil. This disconnect poses problems for our health, our environment, and our society.

The Organic Response

How does organic food fit into all this? Simply put, the industrialization of agriculture prompted a response: organic farming. But most American consumers have only recently become aware of organic products, as natural food chains, supermarkets, and even Wal-Mart have introduced this segment of the food industry to a wider audience.

Shopping for groceries today means confronting new choices among goods that appear to be identical except for their prices and the addition of “organic” labels. Based on our notions of organic, we make assumptions about these products, but what do we really know? We may understand that an organic product is grown without synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, growth hormones, or antibiotics. Beyond that, we are left with several basic questions:

•What exactly does it mean when food is labeled “organic”?
•How do we know the products we buy are organic?
•Where does all this organic food come from?

Here’s the short course. In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). Twelve years later, beginning on October 21, 2002, organic food became eligible for official USDA recognition. The “organic” labels and products you find in stores today are the result of this law, and the law itself is the result of a long, flavorful history of ideological struggle and political wrangling.5 When you buy an organic product, you are paying for an assurance that the product is different–perhaps better–than its conventional counterpart.

The following brief guided tour through the labels will help you understand exactly what this law means to you in the grocery store.

Behind the Seal

The first thing to remember is that any product now sold in the United States that claims to be “organic” must meet the criteria of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), set forth in the OFPA. Although the USDA seal is not required, any organic product must include the name and address of a certifying agency accredited by the USDA.6 In other words, if it says “organic,” it has to meet the government standards, and it will most likely display this seal:

The second thing that the well-informed organic shopper should know is that all organic foods are not created equal. Depending on the percentage of organic ingredients a product contains, it falls into one of four categories–only two of which are eligible for official recognition on the Principal Display Panel (PDP), meaning the front of the jar, can, bag, or box.

We’ll use salsa as an example and start with the top of the line. The PDP will look like this:
The “organic label” with a percentage included may seem self-explanatory, but remember: whether it’s 100 percent organic or just organic, the seal itself will look the same. The difference between the product labeled “organic” and one that includes a percentage is a matter of a few percentage points of ingredients.

With the “100% organic” label, every ingredient in the box, can, or jar must be grown organically, except for the salt and water (which are not certifiable). As with all food products sold in the United States, the water must conform to the federal safe drinking water standards. Unlike conventional products, the salt in organic products cannot contain a flowing agent.* In addition, none of the
* The additive that keeps salt from getting lumpy and, incidentally, the inspiration for Morton Salt’s girl with the umbrella–“When it rains, it pours.”ingredients can be irradiated, contain genetically engineered organisms (GEOs), or be grown with sewage sludge fertilizer–the so-called big three.

A product labeled “organic” means that at least 95 percent of its ingredients (either by weight or by volume) must be organic. To meet this criterion is to be as close to perfect as is vegetably possible. For example, during the process of making salsa, let’s say the supply of organic vinegar becomes dangerously low and therefore unavailable. A letter is placed on file from the vinegar source stating that it cannot supply the salsa maker with organic vinegar, and conventional vinegar enters the salsa.7 If the conventional ingredient is not affected by the big three, makes up less than 5 percent of the total ingredients, and is clearly listed in the ingredient panel, the product may be certified “organic.”

The third category of organically labeled foods will be less visible because these products are not allowed to use the word organic as a description of the product. Even though it isn’t eligible for a USDA seal or a certifier’s logo, the product may include the words “made with organic ingredients” and list up to three organic ingredients on the PDP. The “made with . . .” rating requires that at least 70 percent of the ingredients be grown, shipped, and packaged according to organic standards, and the big three rules still apply, even in the remaining 30 percent of nonorganic ingredients.

The last type of organic product bears no seal or certifier’s logo and contains less than 70 percent organic ingredients. Organic ingredients can be listed on the back panel, but all references to the organic content of the product are prohibited on the PDP in order to “assure that these statements are not displayed in such a manner as to misrepresent the actual organic composition of the product.”8 In this last category, the big three are allowed in the nonorganic ingredients. Because it makes little sense for a manufacturer to pay for organic ingredients without being able to advertise them, chances are you won’t see many of these products unless organic labeling standards change to meet industry demands.

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