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As 'organic' goes mainstream, will standards suffer?

Advocates are cheered by the growing appeal of organic foods. But shoppers, confused by labels, don't always get what they think they paid for.

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"The USDA listens to big players more closely than to consumers or small farmers," says Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minn. "With Wal-Mart and other folks jumping in, what will happen down the road is the small- and medium-size operators will be forced out of business."

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In addition to his concern about divergent practices in organic poultry and milk production (the supply of organic milk can't keep up with demand at this point), Mr. Cummins worries about companies buying products like soybeans overseas.

Consumers buying soy milk or tofu, "have no clue that in the case of soy milk and tofu, it's actually coming from China, where organic standards are dubious and labor standards are abysmal," he says.

A widening array of options reflects the many concerns on shoppers' minds: pesticides, animal welfare, environmental issues, other health concerns.

Egg Innovations, which contracts with Amish farmers for its eggs and bills itself as the "Cage Free Company," offers four varieties of eggs: certified organic, Omega-3, vegetarian, and cage free.

The organic eggs are the most expensive and have the strictest standards: Chickens have access to the outdoors, and the company meets all USDA organic requirements. But none of the its chickens are fed hormones or antibiotics, and they all have a vegetarian diet. The different labels are designed largely to appeal to different types of consumers.

"Shoppers are evolving with what's important to them, and we try to evolve with them," says John Brunnquell, the company's founder and a third-generation family farmer.

Another effect of high demand and big players getting into the market is likely to be lower prices. Wal-Mart plans to sell organic products for about 10 percent more than its conventional counterparts.

And at last week's All Things Organic trade show in Chicago, Dakota Beef touted its frozen, organic ground-beef patties. Costco has just begun selling them as a pilot project in the Midwest. In the past five weeks, sales have increased more than 60 percent, says Matt Grove, a business development executive for Dakota Beef. The price: $16.98 for four pounds.

"That's a price point everyone can afford," Mr. Grove says.

Melanie Stetson Freeman contributed to this report from Vermont.

The label says 'organic,' but what does that really mean?

The US Department of Agriculture issued standards for anyone using its "organic" label in 2000. These standards prohibit the use of most synthetic (and petroleum derived) pesticides and fertilizers, and all antibiotics, genetic engineering, irradiation, and sewage sludge in the production of fruits, vegetables, meat, and poultry. In order to be labeled organic, livestock must eat 100 percent organic feed that is free of animal byproducts or growth hormones. These animals also must have access to the outdoors (although the definition of "outdoor access" for chickens is ambiguous).

Even with these guidelines, labels for organic foods vary. They include:

100% organic: Contains only organically produced ingredients.

Organic: 95 percent of the ingredients must be organically grown and the remaining 5 percent must come from non-organic ingredients that have been approved by the National Organics Standards Board.

Made with organic ingredients: A product is made with no less than 70 percent organic ingredients.

Free-range or cage-free: No regulation or standard definition exists for most animals. The USDA regulates the use of the term "free-range" with poultry (not eggs), but chickens can have extremely limited access to the outdoors and still meet the criteria.

Natural: This label doesn't mean anything except on meat and poultry, where the USDA says the meat must not contain artificial flavoring, color, ingredients, chemical preservatives, or artificial ingredients. It can only be "minimally processed." No certification or verification process exists to hold companies accountable for using the term.

Source: The Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels (www.eco-labels.org)

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