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A syndicated eco-advice column
Written by Patricia Dines

"Encouraging the eco-hero in everyone!"

"Making it easy to be green!"

This Month's Column:
Being a Smart Organic Consumer

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Being a Smart Organic Consumer

By Patricia Dines
Published in the West County Gazette
August 2009
(c) Patricia Dines, 2009. All rights reserved.

Dear EcoGirl: I'm a newbie to organic foods, after finding out about my son's food allergies. How do I know which companies are really upholding organic standards? Also, what does it mean when a product calls itself organic but has no USDA certified seal? Signed, A Nurturing Mom

Dear A Nurturing Mom: Thank you for your interest in organic. This is an issue that's personally important to me. I was made ill many years ago by a neighboring farmer's pesticide spray. This led me to discover just how much harm these toxics do to our health and ecosystems, costing us all physically, emotionally, and financially.

So I'm grateful to have the option of organic -- to reduce our toxic load, savor healthy delicious food, and encourage farmers to collaborate with nature again. Organic was created by countless grassroots farmers, consumers, and activists, and its success demonstrates our ability to collectively change the world.

I do also encourage folks to learn more about organic's rules, to help make informed consumer purchases. Here are some basics to get you started.

Understanding Organic's Rules

1) Organic food standards are written into law. Unlike other common eco-claims (such as green, natural, and sustainable), organic food specifics are legally defined and enforceable. So any food labeled organic in the U.S. must be grown, processed, and labeled according to USDA standards. This includes third-party certification of growing practices, including no use of toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, irradiation, or sewage sludge. (Small farmers selling under $5,000 a year are exempt from certification; their materials can't be called organic in another's product.)

Legally defining organic helps assure consumers of the methods used, so that we can know what we're buying and supporting.

2) Organic produce is easy. Sometimes, in the debate about organic's details, the bigger picture can get lost. For instance, the standards for organic produce are pretty straightforward and reliable: products need to be grown organically. Period.

3) Organic processed foods get more complicated. Because packaged products often include both organic and non-organic ingredients, they're grouped into these categories:

• "100% Organic": All ingredients (except water and salt) must be organically-produced.

• "Organic": At least 95% of ingredients must be organically-produced. The other 5% can only contain items from the National List, with strict criteria including no GMOs.

• "Made with Organic Ingredients": At least 70% of ingredients must be organic, with limits on the other ingredients including no GMOs.

• Ingredients list only: For products with less than 70% organic ingredients.

My way of quickly assessing a product is to see if there's an organic percentage on the front, then read the ingredients label to see what's organic. The "USDA Organic" seal is allowed only for the first two categories, but is optional.

Note: The 95% category was created to allow ingredients such as processing agents that are considered essential but not available organically. However, I feel that calling the resulting product "organic" is what creates most of the confusion and controversy in this arena. I'd like to see these items simply specify the organic percentage instead. For now, just be aware of this wrinkle.

4) Non-agricultural products jump on the bandwagon. With organic food's popularity, other product types want to be called organic too. Unfortunately, the regulation hasn't always caught up with these uses. For instance, organic has been defined for natural clothing fibers, but only in some cases for body care products. (For more regulation specifics, see www.ams.usda.gov/nop.)

Also note that fish and seafood have no legal organic standard. Guidelines have been proposed but called inadequate by consumer and environmental groups. So these items can be labeled organic, but it's not tied to any official standard. (More on this is at http://littleurl.net/3f0cca.)

So, there you have it, an outline of organic's essential rules. I encourage you to both buy organic and help it continue to evolve wisely. Through this, we can help nurture healthier lives for all. Believe me, farmers and businesses are watching our economic votes! (For more organic buying tips, plus other eco-shopping criteria, see the web version of this article at www.askecogirl.info.)

Ask EcoGirl is written by Patricia Dines, Author of The Organic Guides, and Editor and Lead Writer for The Next STEP newsletter. Email your questions about going green to <EcoGirl@AskEcoGirl.info> for possible inclusion in future columns. View past columns at <www.AskEcoGirl.info>. Also see "Ask EcoGirl" on Facebook!

"EcoGirl: Encouraging the eco-hero in everyone."

© Copyright Patricia Dines, 2009. All rights reserved.

Bonus Web Information!

>> More about organic labelling and regulation

USDA National Organic Program
Go to the Reading Room, then from the dropdown menu, choose "Fact Sheets."

BODY CARE: "Directory of USDA Certified Organic Body Care Products"

FISH: "Politics of the Plate: When Organic Is Not Organic," By Barry Estabrook, June 26, 2009
"USDA certified organic fish doesn't exist -- but you wouldn't necessarily know it to read the labels at a seafood counter."

Be sure that pet food labeled "organic" has a certifier name. Food labeled "organic" must be certified. However, with pet foods, "only certified organic claims are regulated and enforced by the US government while all other (non-certified) organic claims are not verified by an unbiased third party." So, unlike food, pet food can claim to be organic if it's not claiming to be certified, which is a little too "Wild West" to me.
www.greenbiz.com/blog/2009/04/28/the-war-over-eco-labels (comment)

>> ECOLABELS: We can choose organic AND other criteria. Here are some additional information on your options:

The design of the eco-label matters. How strict are the standards? Does a third-party certify compliance? For a list of eco-labels (299 of them!), with descriptions, see http://ecolabelling.org/. You can filter by category and region.

OVERALL LABELS: "Organic, All-Natural, Local, Fair Trade... What's a shopper to do?"
Good summery of key labeling and shopping criteria. I do however counter their assertion that organic does not have increased nutrition; see (www.organic-center.org) for evidence to the contrary.

GreenerChoices.org- Consumer Reports Eco-labels center
"Here you'll find out what the labels on your favorite products really mean. As the popularity of green product claims continues to grow, it's important to know which claims you can trust and which ones you can't. Use the search tools below to get our expert evaluation of labels on food, wood, personal care products and household cleaners. You can search by product, category, or certifier, and easily compare labels using our report cards. For labeling tips on buying greener products for your kitchen, visit our virtual kitchen."

A glossary of terms is at

ARTICLE: "Why Bother with Organic Food When You Can't Even Know What it Means?," By Lloyd Alter, Jul 24 2009
"Addressing Green Skeptics -- Answer in three words: Yes We Can."
Explores the definitions. "Natural is popular, and local is giving organic a run for its money as the hot trend. But when it comes down to it, Organic is a term with legal meaning as defined by the US Department of Agriculture since 2000, and you can't use it if you don't meet the standard."

>> Product-specific advice

PRODUCT RATINGS: "Organic Soy Scorecard"
Soybean Star Ratings based on a variety of criteria, including: ownership structure, percentage of soybeans and products that are organic, sourcing and farmer relationships, manufacturing process (highest is in-house), prevention of GMO contamination, and if flavors and soy lecithin are organic.

Products include soy products, including tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy yogurt, soy sauce, miso, tofu spreads, cheese alternatives, meatless alternatives, tofurky, veggie patties, and soybean oil.

PRODUCT RATINGS: "Organic Dairy Report"
Cow Star Ratings based on a variety of criteria including: ownership structure, milk supply source, pasture provided, animal cull rate, and procurement of outside ingredients.

Products include milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir, butter, ice cream.

>> More about the organic industry right now

COLUMN: "Is Organic in an End Game?", July 7, 2009, By Samuel Fromartz, Author of Organic, Inc.
This column intelligently challenges the common narrative that corporations are weakening organic standards; explores the debate about synthetics exceptions; and makes a good point about the study showing that organic reduces toxics in the body. However, I disagree with his conclusion that removing excepted synthetics from 95% organic would seriously reduce organic processed food from the shelves. Rather, I feel that it would restore people's essential trust in the term organic; surely these products could still be labelled something appropriate and relevant.

"Organic Industry Structure"
Various charts describing the ownership of organic companies, both by major corporations and independents. (Forwarded by Jill Nussinow.)


You might also be interested in my Ask EcoGirl column:

Affording Organic

For more information on related eco-topics, see my other Ask EcoGirl columns.

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Page last updated 08/14/09