Consumer Reports provides pertinent information about getting healthy food. (Disclosure: I eat organic vegetables from my wife’s garden.)
Critics argue that we’re wasting our money because there’s no proof that conventially produced foods pose significant health risks. Now, however, there are many new reasons to buy organic. First, a growing body of research shows that pesticides and other contaminants are more prevalent in the foods we eat, in our bodies, and in the environment than we thought. And studies show that by eating organic foods, you can reduce your exposure to the potential health risks associated with those chemicals.
During the past decade, U.S. organic sales have grown 20 percent or more annually. Organic food and beverage sales are estimated to have topped $15 billion in 2004, up from $3.5 billion in 1997. Sales are projected to more than double by 2009.
“Consumer spending on organic has grown so much that we’ve attracted big players who want to bend the rules so that they can brand their products as organic without incurring the expenses involved in truly living up to organic standards,” says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, an advocacy group based in Finland, Minn.
Lobbying by large food companies to weaken organic rules started when the U.S. Department of Agriculture fully implemented organic labeling standards in October 2002. Food producers immediately fought the new rules. A Georgia chicken producer was ultimately able to persuade one of his state’s congressional representatives to slip through a federal legislative amendment in a 2003 appropriations bill to cut its costs. The amendment stated that if the price of organic feed was more than twice the cost of regular feed–which can contain heavy metals, pesticides, and animal byproducts–then livestock producers could feed their animals less costly, nonorganic feed but still label their products organic.
That bizarre change in standards was repealed in April 2003 after consumers and organic producers protested, but the fight to maintain the integrity of organic labeling continues. In October 2005, Congress weakened the organic-labeling law despite protests from more than 325,000 consumers and 250 organic-food companies. The law overturns a recent court ruling that barred the use of synthetic ingredients in “organic” foods. It mostly affects processed products such as canned soups and frozen pizza.
what’s in the food
So what can you count on when you buy organic? No animals, except dairy cows prior to being moved to organic farms, can be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or feed made from animal byproducts, which can transmit mad cow disease. No genetic modification or irradiation is permitted, nor is fertilizer made with sewage sludge or synthetic ingredients, all of which are allowed in most conventional food production.
Organically raised animals must also have access to the outdoors, though it might simply mean that cattle are cooped up in outdoor pens. The rules governing poultry are even less stringent than for other livestock. Some “organic” chickens, for example, spend their short lives confined in coops with screen windows.
Organic fruits and vegetables are farmed with botanical or primarily nonsynthetic pest controls quickly broken down by sunlight and oxygen, instead of long-lasting synthetic chemicals. Organic produce sometimes carries chemical residues because of pesticides that are now pervasive in groundwater and rain, but their chemical load is much lower.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., eating the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables exposes you to about 20 pesticides a day on average. If you eat the 12 least contaminated, you’re exposed to about two pesticides a day.