Thursday, March 11, 2010

What is Organic Food?

Until recently, organic and natural were just claims growing out of a desire to balance human, animal and environmental health based on the principals of Sir Albert Howard, a British botanist. Organic and natural farming has been practiced in the United States since the late 1940s after the rise of the new generation of pesticides. Organic farming has grown from experimental garden plots to the emergence of the “organic industrial complex” selling its products under a special organic label. It was the government intervention and regulation of the organic food market that has given rise to the organic industrial complex.

In the 1990, after an attempt to develop a consensus of production and certification standards during the late 1980’s, Congress drafted the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990, adopted as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, which required the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as organic meet consistent, uniform standards. This process took twelve years. This resulted in the labeling you have seen on fruit and vegetables in the form of those little stickers on your fruit and vegetables. Any number beginning with a 9 is organic. The Act also requires USDA to establish an organic certification program. These standards were loose enough to allow for the manufacture of organic junk food

To be certified organic food must be grown without the use of conventional non-organic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides (there is some allowance to use controlled amounts of pesticides as a last resort). Fruits, legumes, vegetables, herbs and grains are produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals, except nitrogen, lime and potash from approved sources. The food is produced on land that has not had synthetic chemicals applied in the past three years. There are reportedly more than 400 chemical pesticides routinely used in conventional farming and residues remain on non-organic food even after washing. One class of pesticides, endocrine disruptors have recently become and area of investigation for the EPA. Organic food is grown without synthetic pesticides and in compliance with an approved organic plan that specifies amongst other things treatment of compost and biological waste.

For livestock and dairy, Organic animals aren't given drugs. Organic farming standards prohibit the use of antibiotics, growth hormones and genetically modified vaccines in farm animals Organic animals aren't fed slaughterhouse waste, blood, or manure. Organic animals are either pastured in organic pastures or gain feed organic feed. Organic crops and feed are supposed to be free of genetically modified species. Recent questions have arisen regarding the cross pollination of genetically modified perennial crops such as alfalfa contaminating organic pastures. Note that there is no US standard for organic fish. Any fish labeled as organic is a farm raised fish feed an organic diet (probably grain) and certified by another entity. I prefer wild fish.

The organic label is now conferred on processed foods. The creation of this “value added” category has encouraged the entry into the organic category of large food manufacturing companies. The organic standards differentiate between single ingredient foods discussed above like produce, milk and multi-ingredient foods like cookies and yogurt. Under the government regulations processed food can now be certified as organic. Foods such as beverages, snacks, and other processed foods are classified in different ways to indicate how much of their ingredients are organic. Processed foods are labeled; 100% Organic, Organic, Made with Organic Ingredients. Only food with at least 95% organic ingredients by weight may display the USDA Organic seal.

100% Organic—Foods bearing this label are made with 100% organic ingredients* and may display the USDA Organic seal.

Organic—These products contain at least 95–99% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients are not available organically but have been approved by the NOP. These products may display the USDA Organic seal. These are typically foods that require baking soda, ascorbic acid to retain their color when packaged and other processing ingredients, food additives and flavor.

Made With Organic Ingredients—Food packaging that reads “Made With Organic Ingredients” must contain 70–94% organic ingredients. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal; instead, they may list up to three ingredients on the front of the packaging.

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