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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Being a Smart Organic Consumer

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

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

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

Email your questions about going green to ( for possible inclusion in future columns. Also see “Ask EcoGirl” on Facebook!

“EcoGirl: Encouraging the eco-hero in everyone.”

© Copyright Patricia Dines, 2009. All rights reserved.