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The Importance of Being Label Savvy
Understanding the New National Organic Standards
By Consuelo Reyes

Much will be the hoopla over the new federal rules for organically certified foods in effect since October 21 of this year and overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Many hail the regulations as a sign that organics have arrived no longer a haven of the far out health-nut fringe, but an increasingly important sector of the food industry, accounting for some 10 billion dollars a year in sales. The advocates say the standards insure a baseline of quality in place of the disorganized system that arose from the 60's.

There are many, however, who fear the national standards dilute the whole concept of organics developed by dedicated farmers.

But one thing is clear: the new federal organic regulations are here and we consumers will be confronted with labels on which the words we see may not necessarily mean what we think. Here are the new labels:

  • "100 PERCENT ORGANIC" means produced with no hormones, antibiotics, synthetic pesticides, irradiated components, genetically modified organisms, or sewage sludge. This is your best bet for quality assurance. Or, as David Hinckley in the Daily News, put it, "If you want to be absolutely sure your food has none of that...you need '100% Organic.' "
  • "ORGANIC" at least 95% of all ingredients by weight must be organically produced as stated above. But the really important question is, what about the other 5%? The new rules have no control over this 5%. Will these be low quality, highly sprayed items or, perhaps, irradiated or genetically-engineered ingredients which are currently not required to be labeled as such?
  • "MADE WITH ORGANIC INGREDIENTS" at least 70% of ingredients by weight must be organic. Again, what of the other 30% nonorganics?
  • Processed foods with less than 70% organic ingredients may not display the word "organic" on the front of the package. But they may list the organic ingredients on the back information panel.

Small organic farmers are deeply concerned about government oversight in this area, fearing, among other things, these new rules and regulations will be used to harass them. Already, they feel overwhelmed by all the paperwork and constant testing required for certification.

Will the new guidelines be a good thing for the country's health or just another case where quality falls vaguely into the shadows? Time will tell. Meanwhile, if you're accustomed to buying organic, you would be well advised to understand exactly what you're seeing on the new labels and what you're not seeing.

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