Isn’t it Organic? | VailDaily.com
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Isn’t it Organic?

Bob Berwyn

A new set of federal labeling standards for organic foods taking effect later this month will help consumers make more informed choices as they load up their shopping carts with more and more organic products.Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the standards include definitions for the term &quot100 percent organic&quot and &quotorganic,&quot describing products that contain 95 percent organically produced ingredients. The term, &quotmade with organic ingredients&quot describes products that are made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients.Beginning Oct. 21, U.S. producers selling more than $5,000 of organic agricultural products must be certified by an USDA-approved agency. A new logo will identify products that meet the standard. The standards will also apply to products from other countries.&quotI think the standards are a good thing for consumers,&quot said Jeffrie Susan, long-time owner of Nature’s Providers in Avon. &quotWe’re really careful about trying to find out about the farms our products come from, so we know what we’re getting. But national standards should be useful for retailers that don’t check into it.&quotOverall, the interest level in organic products has climbed steadily, Susan says. &quotMore farmers are getting into it. That should help bring prices down.&quotOrganic products are &quotoff the Richter scale,&quot says Bruce Sheldon, long-time owner of Amazing Grace. Sheldon bought the Breckenridge store 27 years ago and says he’s seen demand grow steadily, then explode in the past few years. Sheldon says mainstream retailers are getting into organic products in a big way, with some industry sources predicting that Wal-Mart will soon be the biggest purveyor of all.&quotTheoretically, this should be a boon for consumers,&quot Sheldon says of the new federal standards. Up until now, several different independent authorities have been responsible for certification. At times, they even fought among themselves, he says. Centralizing the certification the function could help boost consumer confidence, making shoppers feel like they know what they are getting, he adds.But Sheldon says consumers must remain vigilant. It’s not clear to what degree agri-businesses have co-opted the USDA, he warns. &quotIt’s like a revolving door,&quot he says. &quotYou’ve got people from the industry going to work for the government.&quot Along with others involved in the organic food business, Sheldon says it remains to be seen whether the government will hold those large producers to a high standard.&quotI tell my customers I can’t guarantee anything. Im getting stuff from Mexico and South America that’s labeled organic and I just have to trust my supplier,&quot Sheldon says, explaining that he’s been growing more and more of his own produce on a southern Colorado farm.The new USDA standards could help level the playing field in that regard, says Holly Givens, a spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association. Under the new rules, any product sold in the U.S. as organic must meet the same standards as domestic products and be certified through an agency recognized by the USDA or through an equivalent program approved by the department, Givens explains.&quotWill the new federal rules make it easier for the big companies to call themselves organic?&quot asks Jim Dyer, director of the Colorado Organic Producers Association. Dyer consciously refers to the organic &quotmovement,&quot rather than the organic industry, and clearly gives the impression that he believes there’s more to selling producing organic goods than simply slapping a green label on an apple. &quotMaybe it will help weed out some of the companies that jumped on the organic bandwagon just to be able to charge a premium,&quot he says.Dyer also acknowledgs that the organic niche is one of the few bright spots in American agriculture these days, and hopes that the new standards will provide a further boost. Still, he urges consumers to keep some of these fundamental questions in mind as organic products continue to gain mainstream acceptance.In addition to meeting regulatory guidelines, Dyer says there’s a philosophical aspect to consider. &quotWhat has been important is that organic farmers have worked their own land,&quot he says. Even as mainstream companies dive into the organic realm, Dyer says consumers should be aware of that connection between the land, the grower, the product and the consumer. Relying on a federal organic label is one thing. Knowing the people who grow your food is something else altogether, he says, asking rhetorically whether large corporations that jump on the organic bandwagon will be philosophically attuned to that mindset.There’s also the question of enforcement, says Bill Flother, a Palisade fruit grower who helped organize the Vail Farmer’s Market. &quotThe USDA barely has the resources to enforce the labeling laws that already exist,&quot Flother says. &quotYou can go to any supermarket and find things that are mislabeled, by USDA standards. I think it will end up being a voluntary thing,&quot he adds.People who sell or label a product &quotorganic&quot when they know it does not meet USDA standards can be fined up to $10,000 for each violation.The new federal certification system replaces a mish-mash of standards set by state governments and private certification agencies. It took more than 10 years of negotiations between producers, distributors certifying agencies and the federal government to reach the deal.The national standards could boost an industry that is small but growing. Organic farming accounts for less than 2 percent of total U.S. agricultural production. But according to data compiled on the OTA Website, the sector has grown by at least 20 percent annually for the past decade. According to the OTA, Americans spent more than $9 billion on organic products in 2001, a figure that will grow to $20 billion by 2005.Find out more about the national organic food standards online at the USDA National Organic Program: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/.


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