The buzz surrounding New York City’s recent decision to ban the use of trans fats in restaurants  highlights the latest strategy in America’s ongoing war against potentially harmful food. The relatively new movement to regulate or ban the use of trans fats is apparently fueled by the national rise in obesity-related illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease —not to mention the national rise in obesity . Healthier eating seems to be on everyone’s minds.
Now that healthier eating is entering the public consciousness and becoming a way of life for some, many more people are starting to believe what “health nuts” have been promoting for years: “organic” foods are better for you.1 Organic food proponents argue that organic food production causes less detriment to the environment, ensures better treatment of animals, and results in foods with greater nutritional value.2 The range of choices in organic products is increasing as the trend toward healthier eating grows, in spite of the high prices of organic food (often double the price of comparable conventional foods). Organic food is big business.
The exact definition of “organic” depends upon the standard of certification used. There are many, both international and local . The European Union  and the U.S. have two of the most influential and powerful. According to the Organic Trade Association  both systems are similar and share the following: (1) third party certification, (2) audit trails, (3) annual inspections, (4) accreditation (5) materials lists, (6) defined conversion periods, and (7) a sustainable farm plan. Within the E.U. and the U.S., individual countries and states may have their own certification standards as well. This means the process of producing and buying organic food can be complicated and confusing, for both farmers and consumers.
To attempt to clarify the USDA “organic” label (and to pick apart all those acronyms): the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture appoints a 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) comprised of four farmers/growers, two handlers/processors, one retailer, one scientist, three consumer/public interest advocates, three environmentalists, and one certifying agent. The NOSB members come from all four U.S. regions, and serve five-year terms. Based on the NOSB’s recommendations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program  (NOP) developed national organic standards and an organic certification program for farmers. Food labeled “organic” by the USDA must meet these standards, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries. In the U.S., federal laws regarding organic standards supercede state laws.
These regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic food production and handling. Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, and without the use of petroleum-based or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given organic feed and access to the outdoors, but are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. In general, all non-synthetic substances are permitted and all synthetic substances are prohibited in organic farming. Food products labeled with the USDA Organic Seal as 100 percent organic are certified as containing at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
The NOP defines organic farming as emphasizing “the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations,” a goal requiring use of “materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems.” The NOSB further defines organic agriculture as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.” This definition concludes, “The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”
Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food must also be certified.
The USDA is careful to stress that it “makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.”
However, according to a 2002 study published in the peer-reviewed Food Additives and Contaminants Journal , organic fruits and vegetables contain only about a third as many pesticide residues as conventionally grown food. This is significant because roughly twenty million youngsters in the U.S. age five and under consume an average of eight pesticides in their food each day, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG ), a nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington, DC.
One event involving the EWG created huge waves in the organic food industry. John Stossel, in a “20/20” report, “The Food You Eat” (aired once in February and once in July of 2000) claimed studies showed a much higher incidence of bacterial contamination in organic products. This report alarmed many consumers, who thought they were paying premium prices for the freshest and healthiest food available. The EWG immediately began an investigation that pointed out flaws in Stossel’s findings and his methodology, a story that was picked up by The New York Times in the article, “Anti-Organic and Flawed,” by Marian Burros (2/17/99). Stossel subsequently issued an apology and ABC announced that the producer of the report would be suspended for a month and Stossel “reprimanded.” EWG has extensive documentation of the entire media battle on its site . In spite of this, many consumers still believe that organic food spoils more quickly and carries more bacteria than conventional food.
One aspect of organic food that was briefly discussed, and then obscured during the subsequent media storm, was the relative “freshness” of organic produce. Many people think that when they buy “organic,” they are getting the freshest produce available. This points out the necessity of differentiating the terms “organic” and “local.” Locally produced fruits and vegetables are usually the freshest available. According to Local Harvest , most American-grown produce is picked 4 to 7 days before being placed on supermarket shelves, and is shipped for an average of 1500 miles before being sold. Produce from other countries may travel much farther. The oil-based fuel needed to transport food by truck or plane from thousands of miles away not only wastes resources, but also creates harmful emissions. In addition, many people who buy local food products feel it’s important to support small farmers and local economies.
Local foods are not necessarily organic. And foods that a supermarket advertises as “organic” are not necessarily organic. Although the USDA has rules governing the labeling of organic food, there is no guarantee that sellers have adhered to these regulations closely or are even aware of the requirements. Consumers need to look at package and produce labels and read supermarket signs carefully. And even then they need to remain skeptical and well informed, since the USDA’s regulations leave a lot of room for interpretation.
The controversy surrounding Horizon dairy products is a case in point. Consumer groups and organic dairy farmers have questioned Horizon’s organic certification. Horizon and similar dairies are making money off of the boom in organic food, they say, while violating the fundamental goals and purposes of organic farming. The Organic Consumers Association (OCU) , a network of 600,000 organic consumers, is boycotting Horizon and Aurora dairy products, as well as five national “private label” organic milk brands supplied by Aurora (among them Costco’s “Kirkland Signature,” Safeway’s “O” organics brand, Publix’s “High Meadows,” Giant’s “Natures Promise,” and Wild Oats’ organic milk). Two leading organic soy products, Silk and White Wave (owned by Horizon’s parent company, Dean Foods) are also being boycotted. While a number of natural food stores and cooperatives have joined the boycott, major national large grocery retailers have ignored the boycott. Most consumers, even those who purchase organic food, seem unaware of the entire controversy.
According to the OCU, cows producing milk for the boycotted dairies have been brought in from conventional farms, and are kept in factory farm feedlots in intensive confinement, with little or no access to pasture, while being given a diet of proteins and grains. If people are paying more for these organic products because they think the animals are treated humanely and that the quality of the product is different, or because they trust the USDA Organic label, then the OCU feels they are being deceived.
It is for this reason that many people who buy organic also favor small-farm produced food: they don’t trust or understand the subtleties of corporate marketing and government labeling. These people feel small farms are less likely to be run like huge factories, which value the all-mighty dollar more than “materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems.” They reason that through the daily contact and care small farmers provide the limited number of plants and animals they are able to raise, small or family-run farms are kept more accountable, responsible, and aware. The sheer volume of output required from huge corporate farms creates mass-produced food that compromises organic standards. Small farms avoid at least this problem.
Which also brings us back to the draw of “locally produced” food. With a shorter distance to travel, and fewer middlemen in between, it’s easier to be certain you’re getting what you think you’re paying for.
Bottom line: it’s best to read the labels, read the articles, consider the sources, remain informed, and remain skeptical. But if you don’t have time for that, listen to intelligent people you talk to everyday, sources you trust, and your own common sense. Then enjoy your food!
1 For an early study, see “Effect of Agricultural Methods on Nutritional Quality: A Comparison of Organic with Conventional Crops” by Dr. Virginia Worthington, which appeared in Alternative Therapies, Volume 4, 1998, pages 58-69; for a very recent study, see “The Assessment of Occupational Exposure to Diazinon in Nicaraguan Plantation Workers Using Saliva Biomonitoring,” by C. Lua, T. Rodríguez, A. Funez, R. Irish and R. Fenske, in The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 1076, September 2006: Living in a Chemical World: Framing the Future in Light of the Past, pages 355–365. There are, of course, many others.
2 Study by Doctor’s Data Lab (Chicago) in the Journal of Applied Nutrition, Vol. 45, Issue #1, 1993, published by the International & American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists (IAACN).
3 “Pesticide Residues in Conventional, IPM-Grown and Organic Foods: Insights from Three U.S. Data Sets,” by B. Baker, C. Benbrook, E. Groth III, and K. Benbrook, in Food Additives and Contaminants, Volume 19, No. 5, May 2002, pages 427-446.