Organic 101

The term “organic” may very well be this decades hottest buzz word. What was once touted a hippy way of “living off the land” has now become as mainstream as bottled water or cell phones. But what does it all really mean? Is it a Hollywood-esque fad? Is it truly healthier? Or is it a marketing tool designed to simply fatten the wallets of our nations businesses?

Our resident nutrition geek and environmental soap-boxer recently had the opportunity to speak with a representative of Quality Assurance International, the global powerhouse of organic certification services, and the information garnered follows; translated from governmental jargon to plain text as best as possible.

Brief History of the Organic Movement:
The 1970’s saw the introduction of independent certifying agencies in an attempt to thwart consumer fraud of the increasingly popular organic movement. Although an improvement to the non-existent standards, these agencies, with their lack of consistent standards, did little beyond generating public interest and creating a demand for a better set of standards.
In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act. However, it wasn’t until 1997 that the USDA released their proposed regulations. This first release, some would term mockery, brought about further public awareness with its inclusion of the “Big 3” as acceptable organic practices. The branded “Big 3” are defined as sewage sludge, GMO’s and irradiation. The scoffing public sent Congress back to the drawing board and in March of 2000 the second draft was released, sans the “Big 3”. Thus, the humble beginnings of the “National Organic Program” or “NOP”, with full implementation and regulation in place October 2002.

USDA

USDA Certification and other Governmental Jargon:
So what does it take to get the coveted USDA Organic Seal? Here’s where it becomes a bit of a governmental, logistical issue chock full of jargon and acronyms which are outlined here for a more clear understanding:

  • Congress passed the revised regulations and the USDA released them
  • The NOP (National Organic Program) was formed from these regulations
  • The NOS (National Organic Standards) are the benchmark standards that must be in place, or excluded, to meet the NOP regulations
  • The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) is the governing entity for the NOP
  • The USDA then accredits state, private and foreign organizations to become “certifying agents”
  • These 3rd party agencies then certify that organic “production” and “handling” practices meet the NOS
  • There are just around 100 certifying agencies worldwide, roughly 60% domestic and 40% foreign
  • These certifying agencies then visit OR contract out inspections of the farms, processing facilities and to some extent retailers, using the OCP (organic compliance plan) that strictly adhere to the NOS
  • The Certification process is 5 Tiered and is reviewed annually: Application, Inspection, Review, Resolution and Certification
  • Producers and Processors MUST be certified and retailers need be certified IF they are repackaging any USDA Certified Organic products or would like to promote themselves as a USDA Certified Organic facility, meeting all of the standards a producer or processor must
  • There are a number of standards one must meet, but they can be grouped into 6 basic categories:
    • Paperwork trail of their OCP
    • Product Protection against contaminants (fertilizers, pesticides etc), farms must be at least 3 years free of any contaminants
    • Sanitation in product housing area
    • Product Housing Pest Control
    • Product Labeling Compliance (See “What’s in a label” in next section)
    • Employee Training
  • **Visit www.ams.usda.gov/nop for a complete breakdown of NOS standards and guidelines.

    Jargon aside, it is a very stringent set of regulations at every level that must be followed to bring a USDA certified Organic product to your table!
    What’s in a Label?

    You’re at the supermarket perusing the shelves and scrutinizing each label only to find that some products tout to be 100% organic, while some are “made” with organic and some simply read “organic”. To clear up the syntax follow these guidelines:

  • “100 Percent Organic” or “100% Organic” means just that, ALL ingredients were grown and handled according to USDA organic standards.
  • The “Organic” label is given to those products that are made of at least 95% USDA certified Organic ingredients
  • “Made with Organic” ensures that at least 70% of the ingredients are USDA certified
  • Products under the 70% threshold may only list individual ingredients as organic

Bottom Line:
The term “Organic” is technically an agricultural production methodology, a process claim or standard by which ingredients or foods are grown, processed and handled. It ensures that the food is grown and processed without pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, artificial flavors, as well as other potentially harmful entities. It is safe to assume that these methodologies yield foods that are ultimately better for the human body than their non-organic counterparts yet scientific studies are only now in the works to confirm these claims. Until then, the USDA is not claiming that “organic” equates to “healthy”, yet we can certainly ascertain that it is undoubtedly “healthier”.

Nutrition aside, what is often underestimated or undervalued is the effect of organic farming on our environment, wildlife, overall ecosystem and again, full circle, back to human health. There is little doubt, but less awareness, that pesticides, fertilizers and other synthetics contaminate our ground and surface water, negatively affect our wildlife population and endanger agricultural sustainability.

It is my humble opinion that going “organic” is not only sensible from a nutrition/health standpoint but even more so from an environmental sustainability perspective. Businesses will, and at times must, jump on the wagon when a potential for profit exists and the “organic” industry certainly presents this opportunity. While some may be looking to exploit this channel many are bolstering the movement by increasing awareness, creating further demand and making genuine efforts to contribute to environmental sustainability. As consumers, we must educate ourselves, understand the dynamics of economics and politics and simply make our own informed decisions. I believe the USDA is both struggling and succeeding in its endeavor to regulate the industry and will continue to improve standards and educate the public. Bottom Line: The risk of ignoring this movement is much higher than the risk of embracing it.

Organic Facts:

  • Organic sales rose from 1 billion in 1990 to 12 billion in 2004
  • 75% of organic consumers are female
  • In 2004 44% of total organic food sales came from mainstream channels (i.e. supermarkets versus specialty stores)
  • Nearly half of organic consumers are between the ages of 30-49
  • The mean income of the average organic consumer is $47K
  • It costs the processors around 3K/year to become certified organic
  • It is often difficult for small farmers, especially those in remote areas of the world, to become USDA certified organic, both logistically and financially
  • As of March of 2006 there were 97 certifying agents, 56 domestic and 41 foreign
  • Organic sales rose from 1 billion in 1990 to 12 billion in 2004
  • 75% of organic consumers are female
  • In 2004 44% of total organic food sales came from mainstream channels (i.e. supermarkets versus specialty stores)
  • Nearly half of organic consumers are between the ages of 30-49
  • The mean income of the average organic consumer is $47K
  • It costs the processors around 3K/year to become certified organic
  • It is often difficult for small farmers, especially those in remote areas of the world, to become USDA certified organic, both logistically and financially
  • As of March of 2006 there were 97 certifying agents, 56 domestic and 41 foreign

Resources

  • National Organic Program
  • Organic Trade Association
  • QAI-Quality Assurance International
  • US Department of Agriculture
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