Whether you say 'to-may-to' or 'to-mah-to' is no longer the question. The issue today is whether the tomatoes you buy are organic, a distinction that matters to a growing number of shoppers. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic food reached $10.4 billion in 2003, a hearty 20 percent increase over the previous year. In many ways, the boom in organics is good news. Consumers are finally paying attention to where their food comes from (not the supermarket, after all) and using their purchasing power to get synthetic pesticides and growth hormones out of what they eat.
But with all the money to be made in organics, some producers are resorting to labels that sound organic but don't meet organic criteria. Terms like 'natural' and 'ecofriendly' are surely accurate in certain cases, but with more than 100 ecolabels making similar promises, how can consumers tell which ones are genuine?
The problem isn't new. In 1990, the federal government made an early effort to address it by establishing organic food standards and the National Organic Standards Board to oversee them. In October 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released updated criteria for earning the now familiar USDA Organic seal.
But organic buyers beware: Even that symbol can mean different things, depending on what else is on the package. First of all, there's a difference between products defined as 100 percent Organic (contain exclusively organic ingredients and may display the USDA Organic seal) and Organic (contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients and may still display the USDA Organic seal). The phrase Made with Organic on a product means that at least 70 percent of its ingredients pass the USDA criteria, while products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients are limited to listing them on the ingredients panel. You won't find the USDA Organic seal on products from these latter categories.
Despite efforts to determine what is and is not officially organic, the field is rife with disagreement. Controversy flared last spring over a set of so-called clarifications that were released (and swiftly withdrawn) by the USDA's National Organic Program. One guideline drew attention to an apparent loophole in the NOP regulations, allowing farmers who had used banned chemicals to avoid losing their organic status if, as allowed by law in certain instances, those chemicals were not named on pesticide ingredient lists. Another guideline emphasized that fishmeal was an acceptable livestock feed supplement, despite its potential to contain antibiotics and other prohibited substances. While the USDA says it meant only to interpret existing rules, critics weren't convinced. Consumers Union, a watchdog group, called the statements a potential threat to the credibility of the USDA's organic label.
Consumers Union is also concerned about the lack of USDA standards for organic seafood. Currently, the seafood industry is entirely unregulated by the National Organic Program, though some seafood marketers still proudly display the word. The same discrepancy applies to body care products. According to the National Organic Program's Web site, 'USDA has no definition . . . as to what constitutes an organic health care product or organic cosmetic.' As for shampoos that call themselves organic, Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, contends, 'People are making organic claims based on counting added water as organic, and, to put it bluntly, that's fraud.'
If some producers are sinking low, others are going above and beyond organic standards. Europe-based Nature & More is a new label designed to reward growers who not only meet the European Union's organic standards but also show themselves to be 'caring stewards of the land and responsible employers to the people who work for them.' The Fair Trade label, another standout, is recommended by both the Organic Consumers Association and Consumers Union. The Fair Trade mark on coffee, tea, and chocolate ensures that farmers have been fairly compensated for their products.
Not to be outdone, the right-wing Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues wants to put its own label on food. Their proposed 'Earth Friendly, Farm Friendly' campaign looks benign enough until you read the fine print. The Earth Friendly program purports to offer farmers 'more choices -- rather than limiting them,' a philosophy that amounts to endorsing antiorganic practices like the use of growth hormones and synthetic pesticides. As Urvashi Rangan, director of Consumers Union's Eco-labels.org project, points out: 'It's shrouding industrial factory farming in a nice environmental wrapper.' (Check out the handy ecolabel 'report card' search system on the project's Web site: www.eco-labels.org.)
One thing is for sure: Our national food system is a recipe for supermarket confusion. With such a huge gap between producers and consumers, qualities like integrity and honesty are reduced to hearsay. It seems that no label can substitute for the face-to-face assurance of the farmer growing your food, which is why many people choose to buy their produce at farmers' markets and through subscriber-supported farms.
'If you know your farmer, if you believe and trust your farmer, that's the best assurance you can get,' Rangan says. Take her good advice to its logical extreme, and you just might end up growing your own.
Andi McDaniel is an editorial intern at Utne.