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Organic Labeling-Truth or Consequence?

Much confusion abounds over the term Organic. We see it everywhere now and marketing and advertising agencies have lead us to believe that this term is synonymous with "healthy." This article will explain what the organic symbol means, when it can be used and the fact that it is often not an indicator of a healthy product.

Organic, in scientific terms, means: containing carbon. All edible food contains carbon and we breathe in and out carbon in order to survive. Organic, in food terms, means free of chemical pesticides and certain farming practices i.e.; production systems.

The National Organic Program, started by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1990, was created to police food labels to make sure that what you read on a label is what you get. The program's laws state that their symbol can be placed on a food label only if the product is 95% or 100% organic. These terms mean:

  • 100% Organic-Must not contain pesticides and must contain all organic ingredients (except water and salt). All ingredients must be listed on the label.
  • 95% Organic-May contain 5% of the ingredients not grown organically and must list all ingredients on the label.
  • The Organic symbol is only allowed on a label if one of these above 2 terms is present. In order to have this term present, the food company must be certified by an agency recognized by the USDA as a certifying agency. Agencies vary by state but all must adhere to the standards set by the USDA which include a long list of chemicals that are not allowed in organic farming. In addition, the certifying agencies check that the land has been chemical free for 5 years.

A food label can claim:

  • Made with organic ingredients. In order to make this claim, the food must have 70% of the ingredients grown without pesticides and meet the rest of the requirements of organic foods labeling laws. If a food has less than 70% of the ingredients it is not allowed to use the word organic on the label. If the claim, "made with organic ingredients," is used, the symbol is still not allowed to follow the claim.

General numeric designation is as follows:

  • Organic produce has a five-digit number beginning with a 9. Organic bananas, for example, would be given the designation of 94011.
  • Conventional produce has a four-digit number beginning with a 3 or 4. Therefore, the number on conventionally grown bananas would be 4011.
  • Genetically engineered produce also has a five-digit number on the label and begins with an 8. Again, the number on genetically altered bananas would be 84011.

The USDA only regulates agriculture. It does not define the word organic for cosmetics, body products and other non food items. If a cosmetic or body product like lotion contains food, the USDA rules on organic labeling apply.

Foreign countries that export food to the U.S. are supposed to adhere to the U.C. labeling laws.

However, when foreign countries export food products, even with the USDA certification label, there is cause for concern that it may not be 100% organic. The concern is due to the language gap and knowledge gap in what the foreign farmer understands of U.S. regulations. Therefore, you can't be sure that your imported foods that state organic on their label really are. Although there are a lot of inspectors out there, the organic program has grown so rapidly that they are not able to police everything.

Much confusion also abounds over the term GMO, genetically modified organism or bioengineered foods. A GMO food is one that has been produced using a living organism in the process. The Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates that between 70 percent and 75 percent of all processed foods available in U.S. grocery stores may contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants. Breads, cereal, frozen pizzas, hot dogs and soda are just a few of them. The supposed benefits of GMO include pest resistance and disease resistance. There are no regulations for symbols on labels for GMO due to the fact that they aren't any different from regular food, often they are regular food.

The FDA says these foods do not require special labeling unless the composition of the food product is changed.

Remarkably, little research has been done to assess the effects of regular exposure to levels or chemicals that the government deems as tolerable levels. The United States has an obesity problem that is related to high calorie intake. Americans should focus on the larger issue of eating lower calorie foods, like fruits and vegetables, and less high fast food and candy. People should focus on whole foods, real foods and colored foods to get in their nutrients.

For consumers concerned about organics for the environment, the best approach is to buy locally gown food. "Buy local from a diversified farm, it doesn't have to be organic," says Ron Khosla an international consultant to Organic Certification to the United Nations and an organic farmer. For consumers concerned about health, look at your shopping cart, the more colors you see the better.


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