For some time now, I’ve come across rumors of troubles with the National Organic Program (the body responsible for bestowing the coveted USDA Organic Seal and Certification). Whether it was comments from disgruntled farmers on message boards and blogs, grumblings from members at my biodynamic CSA, the time a Chilean woman came up to me at Whole Foods and laughed in my face for buying organic grapes before delivering a lecture on how “organic” food is really grown, or a half-dozen or so similar encounters…well…I’ve wondered. But what was I going to do? Blog about rumors? Some blogs run that way, but I like to have facts on my side. (I’m still a former newspaper reporter, after all!)
Now those rumors have gained more credence with a Washington Post article which makes the following allegations:
1. USDA Organic does not mean pesticide-free.
- According to The Post, “The original law’s mandate for annual pesticide testing was also never implemented — the agency left that optional… In 2004, Robinson [ the administrator of the USDA Organics Program] issued a directive allowing farmers and certifiers to use pesticides on organic crops if “after a reasonable effort” they could not determine whether the pesticide contained chemicals prohibited by the organics law.”
2. The list of non-organic substances allowed in USDA certified organic foods has increased from 77 to 245 substances since the standard was created in 2002. As The Post says, “The goal was to shrink the list over time, but only one item has been removed so far.”
3. The Post alleges that there are quality differences in organic certifying bodies, with some practicing more stringent certifications protocols than others. One it singles out for particular criticism is Quality Assurance International (QAI). The organic certifying body’s seal is on organic packaged items, although typically the seals and the country of origin are printed in very small type, so I’ve found that you have to look carefully to find these seals.
4. USDA Organic may NOT even mean 100% GMO-free. This is particularly troublesome given that avoiding GMOs is one key reason people, particularly parents, pay extra for the organic seal.
So what’s a frustrated shopper to do? I’ve taken the following steps. And based on the Post article, I’ll redouble my efforts to do so:
1. Find a local CSA or farmer’s market that you trust. Local is always better, because fresh-picked food retains more nutrients and because the carbon footprint involved in food transport is smaller. (Disclosure: I recently welcomed one of the nation’s leading farmer’s markets, FRESH FARM Markets, as a consulting client).
2. Avoid imported organic foods from countries with questionable food safety, heavy pollution, and lax regulations. For me, this means China. Soybeans are particularly suspect. It can be a challenge to find USDA organic soybeans that are not imported from China.
3. Purchase frozen foods from countries with strong health and safety records. When I’m not buying fresh veggies, I always look for frozen organic veggies produced in the US. Sometimes I buy frozen foods from France, as I blogged here. They may not be organic, but I know they don’t contain GMOs because they’re forbidden by law in the EU.
4. Think about whether you really want to pay a premium for the USDA organic seal on processed foods. If you’re buying some chips for the kids as a treat, maybe the “natural” label or plain old conventional food will do.
5. Demand accountability from Washington. The USDA Organic Seal should stand for pure, organic food free of GMOs, chemical pesticides, and synthetic additives.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment and share! I love my tweeters, but please leave a note too!
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