It’s Not Easy Buying Green

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released (and swiftly withdrawn) by the USDA’s National Organic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.

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.