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What Does Organic Food Certification Really Mean?

The term "organic" is being tossed around quite a bit lately, and you’ll soon be seeing a huge jump in the number of organic choices when you visit your local Safeway or Wal-Mart store. That’s because the demand for organic produce, milk, and meat has been steadily increasing, to the point where the giant retail chains have begun to take the trend seriously. In turn, there will be a growing concern over the certification process as factory-style farms start to muscle their way into the organic food market as a result of increased demand.

In 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established what were supposed to be clear guidelines for gaining organic certification, but various ambiguous areas will continue to confuse consumers until those guidelines are made even more clear.

For instance, under USDA rules, growers of fruits, vegetables, meat, and milk are forbidden from using most synthetic pesticides or fertilizer in food production. They’re also prohibited from using genetic engineering, irradiation, or sewage sludge. To be certified organic, livestock must be fed nothing but certified organic feed and can’t be given any sort of growth hormone. They must also be allowed to be outside at least a part of every day, though the rules for what that really means have been open to serious dispute over the past few years.

The USDA guidelines were meant to be honestly all-inclusive, but there are a number of gradients, as well. Here are some of the marks you’ll see in your local co-op or supermarket:

100% organic: For produce, this designation means that fruits or vegetables were grown completely without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. In the case of meat or milk, it means that all the USDA stipulations concerning hormones, feed, and time spent outdoors were met.

Organic: This type of produce or meat doesn’t quite meet the highest organic standard, but the remaining 5 percent of its ingredients have been approved for organic use by a nationwide certification organization called the National Organics Standards Board.

Made with organic ingredients: This certification assures consumers that no less than 70 percent of the produce, milk, or meat was produced using organic ingredients.

The last two other marks you’ll see are considerably more ambiguous. First, there’s the term "free-range," which is used interchangeably with the term "cage-free." The USDA regulates the use of either term when it comes to poultry, but not to eggs, and there’s no clear definition of how much outdoor access animals should receive.

The other term is "natural," which has no real meaning in any food commodity other than meat and poultry, which can’t have any artificial coloring, chemical preservatives, or ingredients. Although it’s supposed to have only minimal processing, there’s no certification process that meat or poultry producers must comply with in order to place the term on their marks.

As the market continues to grow, you’ll be seeing these marks more and more. What remains to be seen is if the USDA will tighten or loosen the process in order to allow producers to meet the growing demand for organic products.

Copyright © 2006 Jeanette J. Fisher

jeanettefisher.com Jeanette Fisher teaches environmental interior design. For more information about Environmental Psychology and 5 ways you can change your home environment, visit environmentpsychology.com environmentpsychology.com

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