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Professor debunks myths about organic food labeling

During the past decade, growth in the organic food market has soared. Is it worth it?
During the past decade, growth in the organic food market has soared. Is it worth it?
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Peter Laufer, a University of Oregon journalism professor, has written an article about organic labeling and some common “myths” about what the designation really means. Common misconceptions include the notion that all organic food is healthier than non-organic food, better controlled and frequently inspected. “Not so,” says Laufer, in a special June 24 dispatch to the Washington Post, which was also published by The Tampa Bay Times. Read the full article here.

What Does It Mean?

Laufer is the author of “Organic: A Journalist's Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling,” and he notes that only the “100% Organic” label on products is a guarantee that they conform to the U.S. Department of Agriculture definition of the term. But, he also notes that the definition requires that only 95% of the ingredients in any product be “organic.” The allowable percentage can drop as low as 70% and still receive the designation “made with organic ingredients.”

Labeling can get confusing. Organic, says Laufer, does not mean that no pesticides or herbicides have been used. It does certify that “meat, eggs and dairy products are free of antibiotics and growth hormones; produce is grown with fertilizers free of synthetic or sewage components; and no genetically modified organisms are part of the product,” he says in the article. There is, however, a sort of disclaimer for “unintentional” corruption or pollution, and there is a list of about 200 substances that can be used by food producers without jeopardizing their organic status.

Better for You? Better for the Environment?

The popularly-held beliefs that organic food is better food and that the way it is grown is better for the environment are also discussed in detail, and considered in context. Recent studies have pointed out that there are few, if any, nutritional differences between certified organic produce and non-organic. But, Laufer also notes that the definition of organic in at least one such investigation was very narrow, focusing only on the vitamins contained in the food.

The factors that influence the environment are more difficult to assess. If a food product is grown on land that, for instance, destroys a wildlife habitat, or if its cultivation is such that land use is altered, there could be a negative environmental impact. The need for transportation to get the product to market might also have an effect. Increasing locally-produced crops, establishing community-supported agriculture and urban farming opportunities and reliance on seasonally available fresh produce represent ways to counteract those concerns.

Purity and Standardization

Even though products labeled 100% Organic may be regulated, they are not always totally inspected and certified. Recent viral outbreaks and diseases attributed to mishandling and contamination are not uncommon, even among controlled organic produce and manufactured products. Even the standards for compliance can be applied in different ways across the country or by different inspectors. It is always wise for the consumer to be aware of the variances, and to be vigilant rather than overly trusting, according to Laufer.

A final myth that he discusses involves imported products labeled organic. Even though imported food is supposed to meet U.S. standards, the author says that is often not the case, due to a breakdown in the third-party certification procedures, lax application of standards or outright corruption. International authorities know of the problems, but frequently are unable to enforce the rules.

His advice? “Think globally, but buy locally.”

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