Utilizing images of a rising sun and of rolling green fields, the packaging of many organic products evokes healthy living, of getting back to nature and reclaiming all that is pristine in the world. But following a last-minute amendment to a routine congressional appropriations bill last year, consumers, producers and marketers of what's billed as the cleanest food available are wondering: What exactly does the term "organic" mean, and will it stay that way for much longer?
According to a statute enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic animal products – be they meat, eggs or milk – must come from livestock not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic produce, likewise, can only come from farms that shun chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
But to the organic community, that term means so much more.
"People have lots of different reasons for buying organic," explains Jean MacKenzie, produce manager at the Weavers Way Coop, a cooperative grocery in West Mount Airy, where a full third of the agriculture sold is of the organic variety. "The two most compelling are the health of the body – to not add to a pesticide intake that has gotten bigger and bigger since the '50s and '60s – and then what's healthy for the planet, for the environment, critters and so-on."
Since October 2002 – when the National Organic Program authorized by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 took effect – the USDA has regulated four types of labeling systems that marketers of organic products can use.
A cereal, for instance, can be called "100 percent organic" if it contains solely organic ingredients, or "organic" if at least 95 percent of its ingredients are organic. In each case, an official USDA "organic" seal may be placed on the box.
If provisions contain between 70 percent and 95 percent organic ingredients, producers can specify their organic components – "made with organic rice and raisins," for example – on the packaging. When organic products constitute less than 70 percent of an item, those specific ingredients may only be identified as organic on the information panel of a package.
Non-organic ingredients used in any organic formulation can only come from a National List approved by the National Organic Standards Board.
Despite all the legal minutiae, MacKenzie claims that organic products, in terms of produce anyway, "just taste better, like when you had a garden. They taste like they're supposed to taste."
The stance may hold less water in the ensuing months, according to Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist with the Organic Consumers Association. His organization fought tooth and nail against last year's insertion into the agriculture appropriations bill of legislative language designed to nullify a January 2005 court ruling banning the use of synthetic ingredients in organic preparations.
"It could potentially allow a whole new list of synthetic ingredients in processed organic foods," says Minowa, who is concerned that the relatively small change instituted by Congress – from allowing synthetic "substances" in food production to green-lighting synthetic "ingredients" in actual food products – could open the floodgates to more chemical-driven procedures of food giants like General Mills and Kraft. Those two corporations own the organic brands Gold Medal Organic, Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen, and Back to Nature and Boca Foods, respectively.
Minowa directly implicates Kraft, through its parent company's lobbyist, Abigail Blunt – wife of Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) – with the controversial amendment's passage, which came during a conference session between House and Senate negotiators. Any debate that may have occurred was not recorded in the Congressional Record.
"By allowing synthetic ingredients that are bad for your health in organic foods," which he feels conglomerates seek to do to make manufacturing easier and more profitable, "a consumer can no longer go out and buy a can of organic chili with the USDA seal on it, and feel comfortable," he says.
Holly Givens, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, which represents manufacturers and lobbied in favor of the legislation, sees things a bit differently. She contends that all Congress did was to roll back the legal definition of organic to pre-January 2005 standards.
If the court's ruling took effect, argues Givens, such "synthetic" ingredients as the carbon dioxide found in soda would have to be banned.
"Our position is that the standards as they were developed over a decade of conversation are what needs to be in place," she says. "The amendment doesn't allow more things, and the approval process of new ingredients is the same."
The war of words is understandable.
Industry surveys pin the value of the organic-food industry at roughly $14.4 billion in sales last year, or about 2 percent of the food industry on the whole, according to Givens. Since 1990, domestic organic food and beverage sales have grown approximately 20 percent each year, compared with a growth rate of only 3 percent to 5 percent in the non-organic sector.
An Ongoing Debate
All of this discussion affects the Jewish market. Asserting that the religion's emphasis on bodily health strongly urges, if not mandates, the purchase of organic foodstuffs where feasible, a handful of rabbis are examining incorporating environmental and organic standards into their observance of kashrut.
From his home state of Oregon, for instance, Rabbi Zecharyah Goldman certifies only organic products through his EarthKosher enterprise. And in Philadelphia, Germantown Jewish Centre Rabbi Leonard Gordon, chairman of the social action committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, says that the Conservative rabbinical organization is considering taking a pro-organic stance in its kosher supervision programs.
But in the middle of this ongoing debate stands the consumer, who is positioned to gain from the expansion of the organic market – economies of scale will likely drive down the price of such healthier fare, which can fetch in some cases as much as double the price of their non-organic counterparts – but who could lose if the end result is a less-than-authentic product.
Maita Shinefield, a one-time caterer in Merion Station, admittedly finds herself in a quandary when she shops.
"I'm not a committed organic shopper, but for awhile, I used it as much as possible," she says.
"I'm more likely to buy organic produce because it's grown with little chemicals or hormones.
"But for a lot of people, they're like 'Ugh! Organic.' There's a resistance to paying the additional price." u