What is Organic Exactly?

Organic refers to the way agricultural products — food and fiber — are grown and processed. Organic food production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers.

What Does “Certified Organic” Mean?

Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation to maintain the integrity of the food.

“Certified Organic” means the item has been grown according to strict uniform standards that are verified by independent state or private organizations. Certification includes inspections of farm fields and processing facilities, detailed record keeping, and periodic testing of soil and water to ensure that growers and handlers are meeting the standards which have been set. The USDA requires that all USDA Certified Organic products contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients.

Can Any Type of Agricultural Product Become Certified Organic?
Yes, any agricultural product that meets third-party or state certification requirements may be considered organic. Organic foods are becoming available in an impressive variety, including pasta, prepared sauces, frozen juices, frozen meals, milk, ice cream and frozen novelties, cereals, meat, poultry, breads, soups, chocolate, cookies, beer, wine, vodka and more.

These foods, in order to be certified organic, have all been grown and processed according to organic standards and must maintain a high level of quality. Organic fiber products, too, have moved beyond T-shirts, and include bed and bath linens, tablecloths, napkins, cosmetic puffs, feminine hygiene products, and men’s, women’s and children’s clothing in a wide variety of styles.

Who Regulates the Certified Organic Claims?

The federal government sets standards for the production, processing and certification of organic food in the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA). The National Organic Standards Board was then established to develop guidelines and procedures to regulate all organic crops.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during December 2000 unveiled detailed regulations to implement OFPA. These took effect back on April 21, 2001, with an 18-month implementation period ending October 2002. At that time, any food labeled organic must meet these national organic standards. USDA’s National Organic Program oversees the program.

Are All Organic Products Completely Free of Pesticide Residues?
Certified organic products have been grown and handled according to strict standards without toxic and persistent chemical inputs. However, organic crops are inadvertently exposed to agricultural chemicals that are now pervasive in rain and ground water due to their overuse during the past fifty years in North America, and due to drift via wind and rain.

Do Organic Farmers Ever Use Pesticides?

Prevention is the organic farmer’s primary strategy for disease, weed, and insect control. By building healthy soils, organic farmers find that healthy plants are better able to resist disease and insects. Organic producers often select species that are well adapted for the climate and therefore resist disease and pests. When pest populations get out of balance, growers will try various options like insect predators, mating disruption, traps, and barriers. If these fail, permission may be granted by the certifier to apply botanical or other nonpersistent pest controls under restricted conditions. Botanicals are derived from plants and are broken down quickly by oxygen and sunlight.

How Will Purchasing Organic Products Help Keep Our Water Clean?

Conventional agricultural methods can cause water contamination. Beginning in May 1995, a network of environmental organizations, including the Environmental Working Group, began testing tap water for herbicides in cities across the USAs’ Corn Belt, and in Louisiana and Maryland. The results revealed widespread contamination of tap water with many different pesticides at levels that present serious health risks. In some cities, herbicides in tap water exceed federal lifetime health standards for weeks or months at a time. The organic farmer’s elimination of polluting chemicals and nitrogen leaching, in combination with soil building, works to prevent contamination, and protects and conserves water resources.

Is Organic Food Better For You?

Fruits & Vegetables There is no conclusive evidence at this time to suggest that organically produced foods are more nutritious. Rather, organic foods and fiber are spared the application of toxic and persistent insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. Many EPA-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases. In the long run, organic farming techniques provide a safer, more sustainable environment for everyone.

Why Does Organic Food Sometimes Cost More?

Prices for organic foods reflect many of the same costs as conventional items in terms of growing, harvesting, transportation and storage. Organically produced foods must meet stricter regulations governing all of these steps, so the process is often more labor-and management-intensive, and farming tends to be on a smaller scale. There is also mounting evidence that if all the indirect costs of conventional food production — cleanup of polluted water, replacement of eroded soils, costs of health care for farmers and their workers — were factored into the price of food, organic foods would cost the same or, more likely, be cheaper. (Source: Organic Trade Association)

Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put in place a set of national standards that food labeled “organic” must meet, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries. After October 21, 2002, when you buy food labeled “organic,” you can be sure that it was produced using the highest organic production and handling standards in the world.

What Is Organic Food?

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.

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 before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

When I Go To The Supermarket, How Can I Tell Organically Produced Food From Conventionally Produced Food?
You must look at package labels and watch for signs in the supermarket. Along with the national organic standards, USDA developed strict labeling rules to help consumers know the exact organic content of the food they buy. The USDA Organic seal also tells you that a product is at least 95 percent organic.

Will I Find the USDA Organic Seal on All 100-percent Organic Products, or Products with at Least 95-percent Organic Ingredients?
No. The use of the seal is voluntary.

How is Use of the USDA Organic Seal Protected?
People who sell or label a product “organic” when they know it does not meet USDA standards can be fined up to 10,000 dollars for each violation.

Does Natural Mean Organic?

No. Natural and organic are not interchangeable. Other truthful claims, such as free range, hormone free, and natural, can still appear on food labels. However, don’t confuse these terms with “organic.” Only food labeled “organic” has been certified as meeting USDA organic standards.

Top Reasons People are Going-Green

More than half of consumers who buy organic believe that it is better for their health, as well as better for the environment. So what are the top reasons they go green when buying food and beverage?

  • To avoid pesticides:  70.3 percent
  • Freshness:  68.3 percent
  • Health and nutrition:  67.1 percent
  • To avoid genetically modified foods:  55 percent

Source of stats: Whole Foods Market Organic Trend Tracker

Organic vs. Conventional Produce

organic-fruitMost shoppers believe organic produce is healthier than conventional, according to recent Boston University studies. Does that notion match the facts? Here is what experts say about key issues.

Is Organic Produce Safer?

Conventional: Stringent federal regulations make it unlikely that conventional produce, such as apples, harbor harmful pesticide levels by the time they reach consumers. The untreated manure used in organic agriculture contains harmful bacteria (E. coli, for example) that could pose more of a safety threat than conventional produce.

Organic: Pesticide levels may not be high on conventional produce but their use damages the environment. Most pesticides miss their targets and are dispersed throughout the environment. Conventional farmers actually use more manure than organic farmers.

Conclusion: At this time, there is no research available to make a clear case that an organic peach or pear or apple is safer than a conventional one. And the USDA says its organic seal is simply confirmation of a method of production, not a safety endorsement.

Does Organic Produce Taste Better?

Conventional: If you did a blind taste test, people would not be able to tell the difference between an organic apple and a conventional one. Taste is due to chemicals. And the chemical composition of an organic apple and a conventionally grown apple are identical.

Organic: Most reports of a flavor advantage for organic are anecdotal. Some insist flavor is enhanced in organic produce.

Conclusion: Taste is subjective. But there is a distinct flavor advantage when produce — conventional or organic — is freshly picked.

Is Organic Produce More Nutritious?

Conventional: Plants have genetic codes that determine much of their nutrient profile. If you analyzed the two in a lab, you most likely would not be able to tell the difference.

Organic: A handful of controversial studies suggests organic produce may contain more of certain nutrients. But even organic experts admit there are too many factors that influence plant growth to make a case for added nutrition.

Conclusion: Many organic advocates feel that trying to identify a nutritional difference between the two types of produce is fruitless.

Produce Problems

Not so long ago, your biggest food safety worries lingered over under-cooked hamburgers and egg salad at a picnic. But recent food-borne illness breakouts have made us painfully aware that it can occur just as easily in fresh produce.

How can something so good for us become scary? One obvious reason is that we are eating more produce in its raw form, without the microorganism-destroying advantages of cooking.

Fixing the Produce Problem

A lot of energy has been poured into minimizing the risk for produce contamination. It’s a good thing, as there are lots of opportunities for contamination en route from field to fork. Farms have concerns like irrigation water, manure, worker hygeine and sanitation of harvest equipment. Processing industries have issues like sanitary equipment, pest control, and temperature control.

Once the food leaves the processing unit, in-transit temperature and sanitation concerns kick in. And at the final destination – from grocery stores and restaurants to household refrigerators – responsibilities continue for safe handling. That’s why the fresh produce industry is implementing standards to address all of the risks that can occur as produce moves from farm to table. Just keep in mind that consumers share the responsibility for safe produce.

Buy Local Produce

It’s not only a matter of hometown pride — it’s a way to maximize nutrients. When produce in the grocery store has traveled a great distance, nutrients break down due to exposure to light, time, etc. Your next best bet is frozen fruit and vegetables; freezing preserves the nutrients.

Tips For Keeping Produce Safe

  • Purchase produce that is not damaged.
  • Choose fresh cut produce that is refrigerated properly.
  • Maintain produce separate from meat, poultry and seafood products.
  • Store perishable fresh fruits and vegetables in a clean refrigerator at a temperature of 40 degrees or below.
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce.
  • All produce should be thoroughly washed before eating.
  • Dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria.

Can the symptoms of food-borne illness be mistaken for something else?

Yes. Foodborne illness often shows itself as flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, so many people may not recognize that the illness is caused by bacteria or other pathogens in food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that many of the intestinal illnesses commonly referred to as stomach flu are actually caused by foodborne pathogens. People do not associate these illnesses with food because the onset of symptoms often occurs two or more days after the contaminated food was eaten.

Bigger is not Always Better

The next time you’re in the produce aisle, try thinking small. The larger your produce, the fewer nutrients it packs per ounce, according to the Organic Center, a nonprofit research organization. Their new report examined several recent studies and revealed some interesting findings. For instance, they found that the more a tomato weighs, the lower its concentration of the antioxidant lycopene — even if it’s organic. Researchers believe that high-yield farming, which often focuses on the quantity of crops, rather than their quality, may be to blame. Bottom line: Fill your cart with petite fruits and vegetables.