Never go on trips with anyone you don’t love….Ernest Hemingway "I am not a glutton -- I am an explorer of food." Erma Bombeck (1927-1996)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

What is Organic Food?

When I first started hearing about “organic” food, I was a little confused since all food, scientifically speaking, falls into the carbon-based organic category. But, in the world of grocery shopping “organic” specifically refers to foods which meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s set of national standards concerning properly certified organic foods. Only products certified by the USDA can be sold as officially “organic” in the U.S. Any producer who neglects to follow these guidelines, and has previous certification by the USDA is fined per offense. So, what we really need to understand is the USDA guidelines.

Ideally, the USDA standards ensure that foods labeled organic are produced without the use of pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, additives and other chemicals that conventionally produced dairy, meat, vegetable and fruits may contain.

The USDA has strict regulations for certifying organic fruits, vegetables, and grains. All organic plant products must grow from fields that have been certifiably organic for three years or more (without using pesticides, or fertilizers), and post-harvest handling must also be conducted under USDA guidelines. However, a “transitional” label may be given to farms that are converting their farming methods from conventional to organic before the criteria are actually met.

Under meat and poultry guidelines, animals must be raised without growth stimulants, hormones or antibiotics to be certified as organic. They must also have access to certified organic pastures outdoors, clean water and bedding, as well as exercise and fresh air. All organic meat and poultry processing plants are regularly inspected by USDA officials. Packing plants must isolate organically raised/fed animals from conventional herds. Plants that pack organically raised animals must be cleaned to organic specifications, before the product is run.

Dairy products from all dairy animals, including cows, sheep and goats may be certified organic. Farmers raising animals for organic dairy production must also adhere to strict guidelines. Animal feed must be 100% organic, and produced on the farmland, untreated with synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. The feed must be untreated for at least three seasons prior to harvest, before it can be fed to an animal whose milk will be converted into an organic dairy product.

The animals themselves must be raised without drugs, such as antibiotics and growth hormones. These products include cheese, milk, yogurt, butter, sour cream, ice cream, and cottage cheese. Certified organic milk may never be blended or come in contact with non-organic milk. In accordance with standard hygiene, dairy safety procedures, including pasteurization, organic certification also requires other specifications: humane treatment of animals, clean water and bedding, exercise, fresh air, and access to an outdoor pasture.

The USDA organic seal also indicates the exact amount of organic content in the food which ironically never has to be 100%. To be certified organic, the food product need only be 95% organic. Varying degrees of organic foods are also noted on organic labeled foods with more than one ingredient: organic (at least 95%), made with organic products (70%-95% organic ingredients), less than 70% organic (containing less than 70% organic ingredients). Other labels note a food’s exclusion from hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals found in conventional foods.

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