What does the label "organic" really mean?

When you see the word "organic" on food you buy, odds are you feel a little better - more health conscious, more ecologically responsible. But what exactly does "organic" mean? And how can you be completely sure that there is no sewage sludge in your breakfast cereal? If you can understand the regulations and guidelines used in labeling foods, you can better understand what's going into your shopping cart and your body.

According to Organic Food & Beverage Trends 2004, 66 percent of U.S. consumers today at least occasionally use organic products - a figure that has increased since 2000 and will likely continue to grow. Many shoppers only seem to have an abstract understanding of the benefits of organic foodstuffs on the environment and their health. Yet, the label itself is packed with very specific legal standards and implications for both the growers and the certifiers.

In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was established to create national regulations for the production and handling of foods labeled as "organic." Two arms of the USDA were formed: the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which advises the Secretary of Agriculture on setting standards and the National Organic Program (NOP), which oversees those standards.

"The good thing about the federal government taking over is that they brought better enforcement," says Jake Lewin, Director of Marketing and International Programs at California Certified Organic Farmers. CCOF promotes and supports organic food and agriculture through certification and education programs as well as political advocacy.

In April of 1995, the NOSB arrived at an official definition of the word "organic" which, in part, reads: "it is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. [O]rganic agriculture [should] optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people." As of October 21, 2002, all those growing or marketing "organic" products were to comply with the rules set forth by the new federal bodies.

It all sounds healthy, but, with undefined phrases like "minimal use", one can only wonder how wide the margin of error actually is. According to the USDA website, NOP regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge and all synthetic substances. In organic production, all natural substances are generally allowed and animals raised on such operations must be fed organic feed, be given access to outdoors and be free of antibiotics or growth hormones.

The rules are pretty concrete when it comes to a zucchini or a side of beef, but when products have more than one ingredient, like breakfast cereal, some might be organic and some not. Determining how much radiation is in your "organic" meal can be tricky. When something is labeled just organic, not 100 percent organic, it means that 95-100 percent of the ingredients are certified. Anything made with less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot be labeled as such, but may list specific organic ingredients on the side panel of the package. While "natural" may sound as good as the o-word, the two are not legally interchangeable.

The rules get hazier when an organic farm borders on one that is not certified. "The operator or farmer has to do everything they can to avoid their products coming in contact with other farms that sell non-organic products," says Lewin, like providing a buffer by planting trees along the perimeter. "But there is no specific law that says that they have to be a certain distance away." While Lewin suggests that many farmers will not sell the outer rows of produce as organic, there is no guarantee that this kind of discretion will be used.

Companies or growers who sell or label a product "organic" and fail to meet the USDA standards are subject to a fine of up to $10,000 per violation. To ensure compliance, USDA certifiers like CCOF check producers annually.

While Lewin believes that having federal standards has had a positive impact on the growing organic industry, he believes more measures should be taken to oversee the certifiers. "There are many more new certifiers and they are only visited once every five years," he says. "The federal government has to make sure that they are compliant and fair in certifying farmers."

The historically higher prices for organic products will likely lower as the number of certified farms and producers increases. Lewin warns that the evolution of the standards under federal control may be slow because of the size of such an undertaking. Consumers would be wise to stay educated about what they choose to put in their shopping carts and in their bodies.