An End to Organic Confusion? ; New Regulations Governing Organic Food Will Cause Big Changes for Chefs, Farmers, and Consumers

Article excerpt

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?

A little history

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."

Playing cop

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. …