BOSTON — For the harried grocery shopper, the word "organic" on a broccoli tag probably carries a simple meaning: pesticide-free - and more expensive.
But for those who follow food labeling more closely, the "organic" designation has much more significance and has become something of a hot potato.
Just ask the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Last week, the department announced it would revamp its proposed National Organic Standards, after being deluged with 200,000 overwhelmingly negative comments from consumers, retailers, farmers, and other citizens - a record number in the department's history.
"This is great news for consumers and the [organic] industry," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, which represents growers and businesses. She adds that some controversial issues remain.
Hearing consumer voices
The original proposed rule elicited protest from all sectors, including farmers, homemakers, congressmen, and involved celebrities such as Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp. They said that the standards undermined the integrity of the term "organic" by leaving open-ended such practices as irradiation, bioengineering, and sewage-sludge fertilizing - the "big three," as they were named.
Those practices are "safe and have important roles to play in agriculture, but they neither fit current organic practices nor meet consumer expectations about organics," says Dan Glickman, USDA secretary. The department will invite further comment on the revised standards.
"This is a time for optimism," says Bob Anderson, president of Walnut Acres, an organic farm in Penns Creek, Pa."The important thing to know is that these issues created this incredible groundswell."
To understand organic, one must look past the carrot tops at the grocery store to a community that prides itself on not only purity, but also long-range ecological thinking, based on maintaining healthy soil and biodiversity.
It's more than end-product categorization, explains OTA's Ms. DiMatteo. "Organic is a systems approach to agriculture that has evolved over the course of time. It doesn't mean that other methods aren't safe, it's an issue of rules... based on a philosophy." (See box, right.)
Generally speaking, organic means that a product was grown and processed without the use of toxic pesticides, herbicides, or preservatives - and often certified as such. In recent years, consumer regard for organic has changed dramatically, with the old "hippie" image of organic foods shifting to one of environmental responsibility. Appearance and size of organic produce have improved as organic farming practices have evolved.
Along with celebrity chefs, many of whom tout organic foods on their menus, a growing number of US shoppers have embraced organic products. And with increased demand, prices have come down (although organic is still more expensive than what's referred to as "conventional").
"Now I'm happy when I get home from the store and find a bug in my lettuce," says a mother of three, suggesting it proves it's organic. While many would wince at such a statement (and advise, "wash it well") it speaks of a change in attitude.
Sales of organics have risen at least 20 percent a year over the past decade, topping out last year at $3.5 billion. Predicted sales for next year are $4 billion.
Certification of food as organic has been either by state or private agency, but the specific criteria have varied and made commerce challenging. California inspections might be different from those in Texas, for example. At present, 11 states and 33 private agencies certify organic foods to their own standards.
'Big picture' crucial
In an effort to level the playing field, the industry petitioned Congress, which enacted the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. An advisory board was established, made up of growers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, scientists, and consumers - known as the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The board submitted its recommendations to the USDA addressing production, processing, labeling, and certification.
But what came back in December wasn't what they had expected. The USDA's proposed rule left the "big three" open-ended and brought to light the demand for food information. What was really lacking was the "big picture" or holistic approach to agriculture, say organic supporters.
Speculation over why the USDA may have initially ignored some of the advice of its own advisory board on these issues focused on lobbying and government agencies, including the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency, that in the past have supported genetic engineering, irradiation, and the use of municipal sludge (to recycle waste).
Monsanto, which manufactures bioengineered soybeans to be pest-resistant, requested the rule be deferred for at least three years. According to one report, the National Food Processors Association, which supported the initial draft, accused the USDA giving in to political pressure. "There is no scientific reason to exclude irradiated or biotech foods," said Kelly Johnston, a vice president with NFPA.
But organic community supporters are resolute. Now that the big three have been thrown out, the field can concentrate on more nitty-gritty issues, such as livestock feed and fees for certification. "There is such a great consensus that we will all go back to the NOSB recommendations," says Walnut Acres' Mr. Anderson.
Margaret Wittenberg, national communications team leader for Whole Foods Market, says she is also hopeful the USDA will ultimately come back with rules that keep the integrity and spirit of what is accepted as organic. Whole Foods is the nation's largest chain of natural and organic food supermarkets.
"This is hitting a chord," she adds "We'll continue to make sure we are heard."
'A Balance With Nature'
According to the Organic Trade Association, "organic" refers to the way agricultural food products - including meats and produce, and fibers such as cotton - are grown and processed.
The "organic" label stands for a commitment to an agriculture that strives for a balance with nature, using methods and materials that are of low-impact to the environment.
Owners and operators of organic production systems strive to replenish and maintain soil fertility; they don't use toxic and long-lasting chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic foods are minimally processed to maintain its integrity - without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation.