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What Does the "Organic" Label Really Mean?

Consumers no longer have to play a guessing game when it comes to organic foods. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) now has national standards for the use of the word “organic.” Unlike just a few years ago, consumers buying organic products, whether produced in the United States or imported, can be assured that the foods are produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, irradiation or bioengineering. Organic farmers are required to adhere to certain soil and water conservation methods and to rules about the humane treatment of animals.

The USDA now uses private and state agencies to inspect and certify food companies that market organic foods. Small farmers with less than $5,000 in organic sales, such as those selling at small farmers’ markets, are exempt from the certification process but they still must be truthful in their label claims and comply with the new government standards. Individuals or companies who sell or label a product as organic when they know it does not meet USDA standards, can be fined up to $10,000 for each violation.

Currently, organic foods represent a small part of overall grocery sales in the United States, but the market is growing steadily. In 2001, sales of organic foods and beverages exceeded $9 billion. The new regulations are expected to help the organic industry as consumers become more confident in the labeling and as larger corporations enter the organic foods market.

As the new regulations are phased in, it is important to keep in mind that the term “organic” does not necessarily mean “healthier.” The USDA makes no claim that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Consumers will still need to read nutrition labels and make wise selections to maintain an overall healthy diet. Keep in mind that the words “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable. Only food labeled “organic” designate that the product meets the new USDA organic standards.

Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious ?

Learn the difference between organic foods and their traditionally grown counterparts. Decide which is best for you, considering nutrition, quality, taste, cost and other factors.

Conventional vs. organic farming

The word "organic" refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Farmers who grow organic produce and meat don't use conventional methods to fertilize, control weeds or prevent livestock disease. For example, rather than using chemical weedkillers, organic farmers conduct sophisticated crop rotations and spread mulch or manure to keep weeds at bay.

Here are other differences between conventional farming and organic farming:

Conventional farmers Organic farmers
Apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth. Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost, to feed soil and plants.
Spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease. Use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests and disease.
Use chemical herbicides to manage weeds. Rotate crops, till, hand weed or mulch to manage weeds.
Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth Give animals organic feed and allow them access to the outdoors. Use preventive measures — such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing — to help minimize disease.

Organic or not? Check the label

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards. These standards regulate how such foods are grown, handled and processed. Any farmer or food manufacturer who labels and sells a product as organic must be USDA certified as meeting these standards. Only producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods are exempt from this certification.

Products certified 95 percent or more organic display this USDA sticker.

If a food bears a USDA Organic label, it means it's produced and processed according to the USDA standards and that at least 95 percent of the food's ingredients are organically produced. The seal is voluntary, but many organic producers use it.

Products that are completely organic — such as fruits, vegetables, eggs or other single-ingredient foods — are labeled 100 percent organic and can carry a small USDA seal. Foods that have more than one ingredient, such as breakfast cereal, can use the USDA organic seal or the following wording on their package labels, depending on the number of organic ingredients:

  • 100 percent organic. Products that are completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
  • Organic. Products that are at least 95 percent organic.
  • Made with organic ingredients. These are products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The organic seal can't be used on these packages.

Foods containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients can't use the organic seal or the word "organic" on their product label. They can include the organic items in their ingredient list, however.

You may see other terms on food labels, such as "all-natural," "free-range" or "hormone-free." These descriptions may be important to you, but don't confuse them with the term "organic." Only those foods that are grown and processed according to USDA organic standards can be labeled organic.

Organic food: Buy or bypass?

Many factors may influence your decision to buy — or not buy — organic food. Consider these factors:

  • Nutrition. No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn't claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.
  • Quality and appearance. Organic foods meet the same quality and safety standards as conventional foods. The difference lies in how the food is produced, processed and handled. You may find that organic fruits and vegetables spoil faster because they aren't treated with waxes or preservatives. Also, expect less-than-perfect appearances in some organic produce — odd shapes, varying colors and perhaps smaller sizes. In most cases, however, organic foods look identical to their conventional counterparts.
  • Pesticides. Conventional growers use pesticides to protect their crops from molds, insects and diseases. When farmers spray pesticides, this can leave residue on produce. Some people buy organic food to limit their exposure to these residues. Most experts agree, however, that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables poses a very small health risk.
  • Environment. Some people buy organic food for environmental reasons. Organic farming practices are designed to benefit the environment by reducing pollution and conserving water and soil.
  • Cost. Most organic food costs more than conventional food products. Higher prices are due to more expensive farming practices, tighter government regulations and lower crop yields. Because organic farmers don't use herbicides or pesticides, many management tools that control weeds and pests are labor intensive. For example, organic growers may hand weed vegetables to control weeds, and you may end up paying more for these vegetables.
  • Taste. Some people say they can taste the difference between organic and nonorganic food. Others say they find no difference. Taste is a subjective and personal consideration, so decide for yourself. But whether you buy organic or not, finding the freshest foods available may have the biggest impact on taste.
 
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