At last! Oct. 21, the day organic-food lovers have been waiting for is almost upon us. Finally, everyone in America will know exactly what the much-bandied-about "organic" label means if only they can remember the definition.
Consider a jar of spaghetti sauce. Simple, huh? Not exactly. If you're an organic-food shopper, from now on you'll need to know the difference between labels that proclaim your sauce to be "certified organic" (hint: look for the green and brown USDA seal; see page 19), "made with organic ingredients," or that list organic ingredients only on the side of the jar.
And until you get used to the layout you may feel as though you're playing hide-and-seek in the produce department. You might not find the organic apples and lettuce in the same place you always look for them.
What does all this mean, and why is it happening?
It started 12 years ago when the organic industry, which was growing faster than Jack's beanstalk, went to Congress and asked for an official definition of organic food and for regulations to ensure that what shoppers are buying as organic really is.
It's not often that an industry begs to be regulated. But organic farmers and food producers wanted consistent standards. Up until then, different states had varying rules and some had no regulations at all.
Their insistence resulted in the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, which set standards for the production, processing, and certification of organic food. Soon after, the National Organic Standards Board, a diverse group of food professionals, was established to develop guidelines to regulate all organic crops.
"For the first time we have a consistent, national definition of what it means to be an organic product," says Barbara Robinson of the US Department of Agriculture. "Before this new ruling, we only had a patchwork of definitions."
From now on, only foods that have been tested to determine that they are 95 to 100 percent organic can display the coveted USDA seal.
A label that says "made with organic ingredients" means the product was found to be only 70 to 94 percent organic. Most of the ingredients were organically grown, but several were not.
A third rule applies to products that contain only one or two organically grown ingredients. A can of tomato sauce might contain nonorganic tomatoes, basil, garlic, and olives but also organic onions. Those onions can no longer be touted in big type on the label. Instead, they can be mentioned only on the ingredients panel on the side of the can.
The new national standards also stipulate that organic and conventional produce mustn't mingle or even touch each other on shelves, in bins, or in walk-in refrigerators. So shoppers will see new displays in the produce section, which will be even more clearly marked "organic" or "conventionally grown," and these foods will be separated.
To prepare for the new rules, all farmers and food processors who wish to call themselves "organic" have had their fields and orchards, processing facilities, water, pest-control practices, and bookkeeping scrutinized by certification experts appointed by the USDA.
Such consistency will be good for consumers, says Ms. Robinson. "They will have more choices among organic foods, be better informed, and they'll know that a 'certified organic' product they buy in New York has been made with the same standards as one from California."
Such precise wording on labels raises the question of whether it will really be possible to keep such close tabs on food producers. The folks at Quality Assurance International (QAI), which has been in the business of inspecting organic food producers all over the world for 13 years, insist that it is entirely doable.
"The process is strict and difficult, and our inspectors are well-trained, intelligent, and technically savvy," says Ellen Holton of QAI. "Sure, people might try to get around the system," she says, but she believes that what will happen is that the industry is likely to police itself between annual inspections,.
"The organic food industry is very self-regulating," says food and restaurant consultant Clark Wolfe. "If anyone is caught cheating, people will tell everyone, and then, it's over [for them]."
The regulations also include a $10,000 fee per violation and per case or can of nonorganic food for would-be frauds.
Organic food grown without the use of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers has come a long way since regaining popularity in the 1960s.
It no longer appeals just to the Birkenstocks and cutoffs crowd, but also to those in silk shirts and high heels. Seventy-three percent of all conventional grocery stores now carry some organic products, the USDA says.
During the 1990s, the market for organic food grew 20 to 24 percent per year, the Organic Trade Association reports. In 2000, sales reached nearly $7.8 billion; in 2001, $9.3 billion. And, according to USDA estimates, the acreage devoted to certified organic crops doubled between 1992 and 1997.
How many people are actually buying organic produce regularly is the subject of much debate.
The Nutrition Business Journal reported that 11 percent of shoppers purchased at least some organic foods, and less than 2 percent were regular buyers. The Organic Trade Association says that one-third of the US population buys organics. The 2001 Food Marketing Survey found that two-thirds of those surveyed bought organic foods.
One of the reasons that everyone isn't jumping on the organic bandwagon may be the cost.
Organic foods have historically been more expensive than those that are conventionally grown. This is partially because organic farming tends to be on a smaller scale than conventional farming.
But as demand for organic foods has increased in recent years, prices have dropped and even, in some cases, become competitive with mainstream foods, says Edmund LaMachia, national produce coordinator for Whole Foods Markets, based in Austin, Texas.
But some people wonder if the new regulations with their extra layers of bureaucracy will drive up the price of organic food. Most industry insiders aren't ready to speculate on this.
Joe Smillie, senior vice president of Quality Assurance International, suspects the cost could drop eventually. "As more mainstream companies get involved, which they will now, distribution will grow, and that will drive costs down," he says. "One of the main costs of organic has been hauling less than a full truckload of food. That's going to change."
On a more philosophical note, he questions what he considers the low prices consumers pay for conventionally grown foods. "Damage to the environment and the health of the farmers who use all those chemicals is not costed out," he says. "I'm hoping that the payment to farmers will go up."
But Jeff Stier of the American Council on Science and Health is skeptical that costs will drop ever. "Organic foods are so expensive," he says. "Parents have been pressured into thinking they have to buy them for their children, but they could buy more fruits and vegetables, which would be more nutritious."
It's not only the expense that irks Mr. Stier. He is against the whole notion of federal standards for organic food. "The government has better things to do," he says. "This is a consumer choice, not a health issue."
For 24 years, Stier says, his organization has followed the issue of pesticide use and health and found no evidence of harm. "The case has never been made that exposure to low levels of pesticides poses a risk to health. Organic agriculture is less efficient. It won't feed the world. And it's a fact of nature that there are bugs on plants. That's why pesticides are needed."
Standards for organic foods should remain a local issue, he suggests, with inconsistencies comparable to those of kosher foods. "There are dozens of different kosher-certification agencies," he says. "And every [certifying] rabbi has a different definition of kosher. So Jews have a choice where they want to go for their kosher food. It should be the same with organic foods."
Stier is not alone in voicing opposition. Although the organic-food industry initiated the national standards, there is still grumbling going on within it.
Applefield Farm in Stow, Mass., is a 35-acre organic vegetable farm whose owners, Kirsten, Steve, and Ray Mong, have decided not to become nationally certified. Applefield doesn't qualify for the exemption for small farms with incomes under $5,000, so they would have to pay a hefty fee somewhere in the thousands, they say and take on a huge extra load of bookkeeping.
"It's just not worth it," says Ms. Mong. "To get certified would be like buying a headache.
"The new standards include some rules, such as how often you turn your compost and how you can only put manure down in the fall, which are impractical. And the way they want you to compost is ridiculous and expensive."
They are confident their customers, many of whom have been loyal for years, will continue to patronize them. But they are somewhat concerned about their ability to attract new business if they can no longer call their farm "certified organic."
Peter Hoffman, chef/owner of New York's Savoy Restaurant, feels there will always be a place for the small organic farmer. "People who buy directly from them know who they are and trust them. It's when there isn't a direct relationship between the grower and producer that the rules are important."
While Mr. Hoffman strives to cook with as many organic ingredients as possible at Savoy, he also values the locally grown nonorganic foods that he buys sometimes even more so than organic.
If he had to choose, say, between an apple sprayed lightly with a pesticide on a Connecticut farm and an organic one flown in from Washington State, he'd chose the local apple. The closer food is to its source, the better it tastes and the fewer resources are required to haul it around, he explains.
Any amount of information that brings the consumer closer to a deeper understanding of where his or her food comes from, he says, is progress. For this reason, and because he is in favor of a consistent set of standards, he supports the new law.
Debra Stark, a small-business owner in the retail field, is also enthusiastic about the new law although with just a few days left to conform, she is feeling a bit daunted by it.
At Debra's Natural Gourmet, her natural foods store and deli in Concord, Mass., Ms. Stark strives to stock her shelves with only organic products. But sometimes, she says, they are just not available. And, at the moment, conventionally grown foods share the shop's walk-in refrigerator with those that are organic.
But not after Oct. 21, although that's a puzzle she is still trying to solve. "To do this correctly, we have to have two different walk-ins," she says. "What's a small store to do?"
Another conundrum, she adds, is that of labeling homemade soups or salads in her deli. "If we have to have paperwork for every ingredient, say, in my organic Cuban black bean soup, then we will probably just have to say it is 'mostly organic.' "
Despite the extra efforts, Stark remains upbeat. "There have always been people who have not taken organics seriously because it hasn't been a federally regulated industry," she says. "Now we can point to this law for credibility, and people will believe it."
While many believe the national organic standards are progress for the industry and for consumers, they also see that it will take some time to adjust to them.
"It'll be like Day 1 at a new company," says Barbara Haumann of the Organic Trade Association. "Quirks will have to be worked out."
The bottom line, she says, is that "the world is not going to change on Oct. 21. It will take some time for this to sugar off, as we say in Vermont."
There is still more work to be done to bring greater consistency and integrity to the organics industry. Next up for a look by the feds, Smillie says, are items such as fibers silk, wool, and cotton; personal-care items including shampoo, lotions, and lipsticks; and even organic dog food.
These websites are a good place to learn more about the new organic regulations:
Consumer site of the Organic Trade Association, a group of growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, and others in the organic food industry. www.theorganicreport.org
Quality Assurance International, global certifiers for organic foods. www.qai-inc.com
Whole Foods Markets. www.wholefoodsmarket.com
The official definition of "organic" now is: "Organic agriculture is an ecological production-management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony."
The new organic standards forbid the use of toxic or persistent chemicals, antibiotics in meat and poultry, as well as irradiation, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms. They also require 100 percent organic feed for livestock.