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
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
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
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
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