by OCI Culinary Management student Alex J Pekar III

Pretty much anyone would agree the United States has become a country of consumers that feeds into the media and follows celebrities much more in every passing year. Fads and trendy practices make their way from city to city. If a famous movie star or sports star is doing it, more than likely it will catch on and the public will think it’s the next new cool thing. Pretty soon, everyone will be doing it. There’s a need to be fashionable for both women and men and it would seem we are all very impressionable. US and Cosmopolitan are some examples of magazines that show all of these beautiful celebrities and models wearing all of these expensive clothes, then show consumers ways to be able to buy similar things for cheaper. There’s music, with music videos portraying a certain lifestyle or just something as simple as the Top 40—people will listen to whatever their radio station tells them are the “hottest songs”. And then there’s food. Yes, even food. Starting with diet fads, such as the Atkins Diet, or the South Beach Diet, if a celebrity is endorsing it, it’s pretty much a given that soon you will see a large segment of the public catching on and getting involved. Now usually people aren’t going to do any research on whatever this new fad is all about. Not to say people don’t at all, but the majority will just do it because they saw the celebrity endorsing it. So how do they know it works? The answer is they don’t know. They assume it will. People believe what they see on TV. But even deeper than just the fad diets, there’s another practice that people have caught on to that is sweeping the nation. I’m talking, of course, about buying and consuming Organic Food.

So what is organic? Organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. (United States Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program) United States Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program) Now maybe you’re asking yourself what that all means. Basically the word “Organic” refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. These practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and to help reduce pollution.

Organic agriculture is the oldest form of agriculture on earth. Farming without the use of petroleum-based chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides) was the sole option for farmers until after World War II. The war brought with it technologies that were useful for agricultural production. For example, ammonium nitrate used for munitions during World War II evolved into ammonium nitrate fertilizer; organophosphate nerve gas production led to the development of powerful insecticides. These technical advances since World War II have resulted in significant economic benefits as well as environmental and social detriments. Organic agriculture seeks to utilize those advances that consistently yield benefits while discarding those methods that have led to negative impacts on society and the environment, such as pesticide pollution and insect pest resistance. Instead of using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic farmers utilize crop rotations, cover crops, and natural-based products to maintain or enhance soil fertility. These farmers rely on biological, cultural and physical methods to limit pest expansion and increase populations of beneficial insects on their farm. Because genetically modified organisms constitute synthetic inputs and pose unknown risks, GMOs, such as herbicide-resistant seeds, plants, and product ingredients, like GM-lecithin, are disallowed in organic agriculture. ( Organic Agriculture ) Some major differences between Conventional methods of farming and Organic methods are: conventional farmers will apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth while organic farmers will apply natural fertilizers such as manure or compost to feed the soil and their plants. Conventional farmers will spray insecticides to reduce pests and diseases while Organic farmers will use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests and disease. A Conventional farmer will use chemical herbicides to manage weeds, but an Organic farmer will rotate crops, till, weed or mulch instead to manage weeds on their farms. Some techniques with animals raised on a conventional farm are animals are given antibiotics, given growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth. On an Organic farm, animals are given organic feed and are allowed access to the outdoors to graze freely. They will use preventive measures such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing to help minimize disease. (usda-fda.com/articles/organic.htm)

The National Organic Program was created by federal legislation in October of 2002. They are the ones who have established the laws and regulations, and established the different levels of certification for organic products, to ensure that all products are labeled properly. If a produce bears a label that states it is 100% Organic, these products have to be completely organic, or made of all organic ingredients. If a label has a USDA Organic label, it means that these products have to be at least 95% organic, or have at least 95% organic ingredients. If the label states that the product is made with organic ingredients, these products have to contain at least 70% organic ingredients. The organic seal cannot be used on these products. There are actually penalties for the misuse of labels on products not meeting the criteria of these standards. A fine of up to $11,000 can be levied on any person who knowingly sells or labels as organic a product that is not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program’s regulation. (National Organic Program).

Now, you might see other labels on products and get them confused with being organic, such as “All Natural” or “Free Range” or “Hormone Free”. These labels are only stating information about how the product was made or raised and have no association with whether or not the product is Organic.

Organic labels carry a lot of weight these days, considering how most consumers read the Organic label and instantly want to buy it instead of the product to the side of it that may not have the Organic label. Now, what people don’t know is that there are a lot of smaller scale farmers that choose not to pursue these Organic certifications due to very high costs imposed by the USDA. They can be charged anywhere in the range of $1000 to $4000 per year to label products Organic. There are a lot of these smaller farms that are only producing about that much in product a year, so certification isn’t really worth the cost. But the problem for these part-time farmers is that it is limiting their market opportunities. Without the certification, many consumers may look past their product. Not only that, but they are missing out on the opportunity to sell their products at a premium price, a price most consumers would pay for because it is Organic. Now if a farm is producing less than $5000 a year in produce, they have the opportunity to write on their label that it is organic as long as the standards have been met, but the official USDA Organic label cannot be used. This can help their efforts, but without the official label, competing with larger organic farms is still a challenge.

The problem with all of this is that there can be some manipulation of regulations with these strict Organic procedures. Large scale production farms, mainly located in California, have leverage within the system and can produce legally organic products produced in ways similar to Conventional methods. Not only that, but larger companies such as Wal-Mart and Anheuser-Busch have joined on board the Organic popularity train because they see the potential money to be made from consumers. And if a huge corporation like Wal-Mart wants to sell more Organic foods, because of its size and power, they usually get what they want. But because of this, several lawsuits and investigations have been filed against these larger corporations saying they might be misleading consumers as to whether or not their Organic products are in fact actually Organic. Retailers and farmers involved in organic foods worry that giants like Wal-Mart may muddy the waters about what is and is not organic. Some are upset over the allegations and wonder whether other supermarkets will take steps to bend the rules similar to those alleged. “A huge amount of work went into coming up with a standard of quality in the organic industry,” says Randy Lee, CFO at PCC Natural Markets, the largest co-op operating in the U.S., which runs eight stores in the Seattle area. “If these allegations are true, then it very easily erodes those standards and comes with a significant business impact on other retailers that have higher standards.” Lee also says that if Wal-Mart is placing nonorganic items under its organic banner, then it will have a ripple effect on other national grocery chains. PCC and other organic retailers say that they train their employees and store managers rigorously to ensure high organic standards. They wonder how strong Wal-Mart’s commitment to organics is. “Where is the USDA in all this?” asks Lee. (Bloomberg Business week, 2007)

The USDA has come under fire in the past for not taking action on similar complaints. Two audits of its organic program, performed by the American National Standards Institute in 2004 and by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General in 2005, were highly critical of how the USDA has handled complaints of potential violations of organic standards. The 2005 report states that “in fiscal year 2003, the eight complaints referred to the national organic program for a decision have not been resolved, one of which involved a possible prohibited substance being added to an organic product.” The USDA counters by saying that complaints about organic food aren’t treated like an emergency. “It’s not like this is a food safety issue,” says spokeswoman Schaffer. (Bloomberg Business week, 2007)

Here’s another example of how these rules and regulations are being tampered with. With the “USDA Organic” seal stamped on its label, Anheuser-Busch calls its Wild Hop Lager “the perfect organic experience.” But many beer drinkers may not know Anheuser-Busch got the organic blessing from federal regulators even though their Wild Hop Lager uses hops grown with chemical fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides. (The Seattle Times, June 10, 2007)

The USDA is considering a proposal to allow 38 nonorganic ingredients to be used in organic foods. Because of the broad uses of these ingredients—such as spices, colorings, and flavorings—almost any type of manufactured organic food could be affected, including organic milk, cereal, sausages, bread and beer.

Organic-food advocates have fought to block all or parts of the proposal, saying it would allow food makers to mislead consumers. (The Seattle Times, June 10, 2007) They say that this proposal is basically saying that these big powerful corporations want to be able to label their products “USDA Organic” without doing any of the hard work it takes. These 38 ingredients could cause further watering-down of the USDA Organic label, which, you remember, means really only 95% of the actual product is truly organic.

Many consumers who are willing to spend more for organic believe that the foods themselves are more nutritious, safer, and tastier. But a USDA proposal itself noted that, “No distinctions should be made between organically and non-organically produced products in terms of quality, appearance, or safety.” So, what they are actually saying is, you can’t claim that the foods themselves are better for you, or are even different! Some consumers believe that buying foods that use organic agricultural practices are better for the environment. Many buyers of organic foods believe that the extra money they pay will ultimately benefit the environment by encouraging more farmers to use organic methods. But doing this cannot have much effect because organic agriculture is too inefficient to meet the current world’s food needs. Moreover, the dividing line between organic and conventional agriculture is not sharp because various practices are not restricted to one or the other. An example of this is organic farmers tend not to use pesticides, but faced with threatened loss of crops, they may change their mind. If certain patterns of pesticide use cause more harm than good and there is a way to remedy the situation, the people concerned about it can seek regulatory solutions. I don’t believe that paying extra for food will benefit anybody but those who sell it.

So are organic foods more nutritious for you? Organic foods are certainly not more nutritious. The nutrient content of plants is determined primarily by heredity. Mineral content may be affected by the mineral content of the soil, but this has no significance in the overall diet. If essential nutrients are missing from the soil, the plant will not grow. If plants grow, that means the essential nutrients are present. Experiments conducted for many years have found no difference in the nutrient content of organically grown crops and those grown under conventional agricultural conditions. (Newsome R. Organically grown foods)

Many organic supporters suggest that their foods are safer because they have lower levels of pesticide residues. However, the pesticide levels in our food supply are not high. In some situations, pesticides even reduce health risks by preventing the growth of harmful organisms, including molds that produce toxic substances. (Newsome R. Organically grown foods) To protect consumers, the FDA sets tolerance levels in foods and conducts frequent “market basket” studies wherein foods from regions throughout the United States are purchased and analyzed. Its 1997 tests found that about 60% of fruits and vegetables had no detectable pesticides and only about 1.2% of domestic and 1.6% of imported foods had volatile levels. The annual Total Diet Study has always found that America’s dietary intakes are well within international and Environmental Protection Agency standards. (FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition)

Organic food is the fastest growing sector of the American food marketplace. U.S. sales of organic products continue to grow despite the distressed state of the economy, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2010 Organic Industry Survey. Organic product sales in 2009 grew by 5.3 percent overall, to reach $26.6 billion. Of that figure, $24.8 billion represented organic food. The remaining $1.8 billion were sales of organic non-foods.

People have definitely bought in to the Organic Hype, and are definitely sticking by their decision. It isn’t the fact that people are buying and consuming organic foods and using organic products. It’s a free country; people can buy and do as they please. But I don’t believe people even understand what it actually is that they have bought into and this is where I see the problem being; they’re not being properly educated about things like Organic. Organic is fashionable, it’s cool, an attitude, a chance to try and identify yourself with being all natural and trying to be green, trying to be all environmental. But people still don’t do the research to see what Organic really is.

Back in the day, everything was local farms. People got their fruits and vegetables and dairy from Farmer Al down the way. They got their meats from the local, butcher, who got the meat from the local slaughter houses. Everything was local because you had no choice. You weren’t going to travel to another town, let alone another state to get food. Depending where you live, local farmers markets are set up to be able to give your local farmers a chance to reach out to the public eye and sell to you what they have worked so very hard for. Most of your local farmers may actually participate in organic practices, but also use conventional practices as well. The fact of the matter is, you’re putting money back into your community rather than into the big pockets of corporate America. That should be the important thing. So supporting local farmers, organic or not, should be the new trend. It should be the new cool thing.

CITATIONS:

Bloomberg Business Week, 2007
http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/jan2007/db20070117_887392.htm

FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
Pesticide Program: Residue Monitoring 1999, August 2000.

National Organic Program
http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop

Newsome R. Organically Grown Foods
A scientific status summary by the Institute of Food Technologists’ expert panel on food safety and nutrition. Food Technology 44(12):123-130, 1990.

Organic Agriculture
http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/organicag/history.html

Organic Trade Association, GREENFIELD, Mass. (April 22, 2010)
http://www.organicnewsroom.com/2010/04/us_organic_product_sales_reach_1.html

The Seattle Times, June 10, 2007
http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2003741899_organic10.html

United States Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Marketing Service
http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop

USDA-FDA Organic Foods
http://www.usda-fda.com