12 May 2010

What IS organic anyway?

So I've spent a few days talking about organics, and have yet to define them. It's no hard-kept secret what organic is; the USDA posts the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (all 21 pages of it) right on their website. Of course, most of us aren't going to wade through 21 pages of government-speak legal-ease to figure it out. As crazy as it sounds, I actually read it (mostly). I even took notes.

I am a dork.

The other day, I went over organic beef in a post, but there are obviously a lot of other facets to the organic industry They even have regulations for packaging and transportation of organic goods.

Pop quiz:


...there are some approved synthetic chemicals allowed in organic foods?
...livestock CAN be vaccinated?
...that having the "Organic" seal doesn't guarantee 100% organic?
...the USDA doesn't inspect Certified Organic producers and handlers?
...there are companies who can claim the "Organic" seal without ever being subjected to certification?

Organic Producers

It's not as bad as it sounds, I promise. So, what is organic? A product is organic when it has been processed and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program's standards. Generally speaking, this means the food was grown/produced/handled in the absence of synthetic chemicals. There are exceptions, listed in a national database on the NOP's website; some synthetic vitamins and minerals can be added to organic foods for instance.

For farms, it also means they can't have used any chemicals for the 3 years preceding certification.

For livestock, it means they can't have been fed plastic, poop, or other animals. Growth hormones are forbidden across the board. However, organic vaccines (i.e. vaccines from a natural source as opposed to synthetic chemicals) are allowed. But for the record, we vaccinate our children. (For the record, I am not supporting or condemning vaccinations in children. I have no kids, therefore I am unqualified to take a stance on the issue, just making a point).

Organic Handlers

Handling is another side to the coin... maybe it's more like a cube than a coin. Or a pyramid... I don't know. Anyway, handlers have their own rules. Obviously they're not growing the food; that's the farmers' job. No, handlers are more like a chef in a kitchen. Their job is to take good food, and get it out to the consumer safely. In a kitchen setting, this means handling the food properly to avoid under-cooking or cross contamination (when in doubt, wash your hands). An organic handler is essentially doing the same job. They need to take in nice organic foodstuffs, and make sure they stay that way! This means avoiding cross-contamination with non-organics; this includes the packaging as well!

They can't add anything synthetic, or add any nitrates (so if you see a lovely bottle of wine with that round USDA seal, that means they can't have any added nitrates, and must test below 10ppm). The handler cannot add more then 5% of non-organic ingredients (not including salt and water). That's right. Even if you see the organic seal, it may contain SOME non-organic ingredients. In order to legally use the seal, the final product has to be 95% organic or more. They have a special seal and special guidelines for labeling your stuff as "100% organic." Even packaging needs to be organic.

Who's In Charge?

And who's inspecting these places if not the USDA? Well, considering the fact that the USDA is under-funded and under-staffed, I'm OK with them holding onto their own people for inspections of say, meat-packing plants, as opposed to my organics. The Organic Foods Act has guidelines for certifying third-party agents to do the inspecting for them. Heck, they even set up a separate, privately staffed Standards Board to advise them on matters of organics. So really, the entire organic industry is truly in the hands of the consumers, since everyone in a position of "power" in the chain is a private citizen. And I think we're probably pretty safe in the Board's hands. There's no compensation for being on the Board, and everyone involved is either a producer, handler, retail agent, consumer advocate, or certifying agent, so it's nicely balanced. If you want to go over the bios of the current Board, click here. I thought it would be a bunch of big-corporate money-hungry unethical fatcats... but surprisingly not.

Now, there will always be people who want to try and hitch on to the organic system, as it is an increasingly growing industry. What's to keep someone from slapping a USDA label on their start-up project as a means to fast-track it to the Millionaires' Estate? What's the penalty? $11,000 in fines to start. BUT, if your total organics sales are under $5k per year, you can actually use the seal, LEGALLY, as long as you meet all the requirements. Yes, without an inspection. But, given the circumstances if you're caught cheating, doesn't really seem worth it to try and cheat the system.

(This blog is made using 100% organic thoughts and ideas. As I make well under $5K, I think I'm good)


  1. A sad but true fact, like everything else you even have to watch your organic's. By the way Shea I just love what you are doing.


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