Knowing what "organic" means is like knowing the difference between an R-rated movie and a PG-13-rated movie. You have a sense that the R movie has something in it that PG-13 doesn't and that maybe the kids shouldn't see an R, but as for specifics ... well, it's gray -- and constantly changing.
For example, did you know that a box of cereal can say "organic" on the label and have all kinds of synthetic materials in it? Did you know that, legally, there's a difference between "organic" and "100% organic"?
Welcome to the wonderful world of government regulations, where good ideas and market forces wage war on the battleground of bureaucracy.
In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Organic Foods Protection Act, which required the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for use of the word "organic" on food labels. Those regulations finally took effect in 2002. As a general rule, all-natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production, and all-synthetic substances are prohibited. There are exceptions, of course, on the National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances.
There are four categories for labeling: "100% Organic" means just that -- everything in it is organic. "Organic" means at least 95 percent of it is organic. "Contains Organic Ingredients" means at least 70 percent of it is organic. And if less than 70 percent is organic, you can't say "organic" on the front label, but you can list specific organic ingredients on the side.
When the USDA was defining "organic," they came up with lots of great government language. Animals, for example, must be fed organic feed and "given access to the outdoors." They don't necessarily have to be outdoors, much less for a specific amount of time, and for now, their feed can include synthetic products that no common-sense definition would call "organic."
That's because the regulations have a five-year "sunset" provision on many of the exceptions on the National List. In essence, the USDA gave farmers five years to switch over to a purer version of "organic." That five-year provision runs out this year, and the wrangling has begun in earnest.
A perfect example is methionine, a sulfur-based amino acid; a synthetic version of it, used in chicken feed, was added to the National List of exceptions in 2001 after organic chicken producers found out it was already in their feed. The "sunset" provision on synthetic methionine is about to run out, and while the farm industry says it hasn't found a suitable non-synthetic replacement -- or that the supply of such replacements is too low -- activists say Big Ag is dragging its feet and that such delays are part of a larger effort to water down organic standards and make them easier, and cheaper, for Big Ag to follow.
Organic food sales are growing at 20 percent a year -- it's now over $15 billion annually -- and if consumers are willing to pay more for that "USDA Organic" label, then people like Kraft, Tyson et al. want a piece of the organic action, so long as they don't have to spend too much money or change too many of their processes. And with the USDA run by political appointees and operating at the mercy of Congress, things can get gray.
Another example is dairy cows. When you think of organic milk, you probably think of grass-fed cows grazing happily in a pasture, with no chemicals in their body. Well, as demand for "organic" dairy products grows, more and more cows raised as "organic" are, in fact, kept inside and fed organic grain so they can produce more "organic" milk.
Some, including the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which advises the National Organic Program (NOP), are now proposing that the organic standards be amended to say that a dairy cow raised as "organic" must actually spend a significant amount of time eating grass in a pasture. They say it will protect the integrity of "organic" food in consumers' eyes and keep small organic farms in business.
But many farmers, of all sizes, say meeting the grazing requirement is either impossible, due to geography or space restrictions, or too expensive and time-consuming. Converting a pasture or a crop to organic standards officially takes three years.
In August, the NOP put off a decision on the matter, instead returning it to the NOSB for futher review.
Activists and many small organic farmers claimed it was another delay by the corporate-friendly Bush administration, which in the spring unilaterally -- with no public input and without going through the usual rules-changing process -- decided to expand allowable use of antibiotics on organic cows, synthetic pesticides on organic farms, and non-organic feed to "organic" cattle.
It also decided that national organic standards will not, after all, be developed for fish, nutritional supplements, pet food, fertilizers, cosmetics, and personal-care products, which means there will continue to be no laws regulating the use of the word "organic" on those labels.
Ronnie Cummins, founder and national director of the Organic Consumers Association, called the changes "an outrage for the 30 million consumers who pay a premium for organic products and expect that they can trust the organic claim."
Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is, as always, to be aware and get involved.