The first national standards for growing and processing organic food were released in December 2000, but until now, it was confusing for consumers to tell which products were truly organic. The confusion will end on October 21, 2002 when the federal government puts its new labeling program into effect. Under The National Organic Rule, organically grown products soon will bear the United States Department of Agriculture organic seal.
The standards, which were 10 years in the making, replaced a crazy quilt of state and private rules for certifying organic food. Until the labeling standards were created, a consumer didn't know whether an organic burrito was 100 percent organic, or just contained organically grown beans. At the store, look for four product categories, but keep in mind that only two can bear the new organic label.
- 100 percent organic. All ingredients used in the product are organically grown. Can carry the seal.
- Organic. This means that at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organic. Can carry the seal.
- Made with organic ingredients. This means that at least 70 percent, and up to 95 percent, of the ingredients are organically produced.
- A listing of organic ingredients on the ingredient panel for products containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients.
The labels will appear on fruits, vegetables, dairy products, eggs, grain products, meat and poultry and much more.
Though they make up less than one percent of the nation's farmland, organic farms are growing in number by about 12 percent each year. The organic food industry has taken off in the past decade, with sales of organic food topping $6 billion in 1999, compared with $70 million in 1980. Sales of organic food have grown 15 to 20 percent over the past 10 yearsfive times faster than other food products.
In order to sell certified organic products, farms must undergo certification by a third-party agency. Genetic engineering, irradiation, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, growth regulators and sewage sludge are all banned. Organic farms need to prove that these materials have not been used for at least three years. Livestock and poultry that bear the organic label must be fed 100 percent organic feed and must have access to pasture. The standards bar the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, irradiation and feed containing animal byproducts.
Though organic products have the same nutritional content as those grown conventionally, many people choose organic products because they believe they have better flavor or are simply healthier. The debate over whether organic is better will certainly rage on, but one thing is clearwhether you fill your shopping cart with exclusively organic foods or you're just dabbling with eating organic products, the new USDA label takes the guesswork out of consumers' selection of products.