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Consumer Reports Covers the Organic Standards "Food Fight"

From: Consumer Reports
February 2006
http://www.consumerreports.org/static/0602org4.html
See also <www.eco-labels.org>

When it pays to buy organic

Which apple? The decision doesn't end once you've figured out whether to
buy, say, the McIntosh or the Red Delicious. In many food stores across the
country, you're also faced with the more vexing question of buying organic
or conventional, and not just at the apple bin. All kinds of organic fruits,
vegetables, meats, poultry, eggs, cooking oils, even cosmetics are crowding
store shelves.

For many shoppers, the decision often comes down to money. On average,
you'll pay 50 percent extra for organic food, but you can easily end up
shelling out 100 percent more, especially for milk and meat. Nevertheless,
organic products are one of the fastest-growing categories in the food
business. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers bought organic foods and
beverages in 2005, up from about half in 2004. While some buy organic to
support its producers' environmentally friendly practices, most are trying
to cut their exposure to chemicals in the foods they eat.

CR Quick Take

Nearly two-thirds of consumers bought organic products in the past year,
despite higher prices.

€ The good news: New studies show that by eating organic food, you can greatly
reduce your exposure to chemicals found in conventionally
produced food.

€ More good news: You don't have to clean out your wallet to buy organic foods
if you know which ones to buy and where.

€ The bad news: As more big players enter the organic market, government
standards have come under attack. So it's more important than ever to
understand food labeling and what's behind it.

Critics argue that we're wasting our money because there's no proof that
conventionally 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.

Second, we found many ways to add more organic products to your shopping
list without busting your budget. For one thing, you don't have to buy
organic across the board. The truth is, not all organic-labeled products
offer added health value. We found, for example, that it's worth paying more
for organic apples, peaches, spinach, milk, and beef to avoid chemicals
found in the conventionally produced versions of those items. But you can
skip organic asparagus and broccoli because conventional varieties generally
have undetectable pesticide levels. You can also pass on organic seafood and
shampoo, which have labels that are often misleading.

Moreover, we found that you need not pay a premium for organic foods if you
know where to shop. See our tips below for ways to cut your organic-food
tab.

But you should also be aware that as more consumers are turning to organic
products, some of the country's largest food producers are trying to chip
away at what organic labels promise to deliver.

ORGANIC FOOD FIGHT

If the organic label conjures up images of cackling chickens running free in
a field and pristine vegetables without a trace of pesticides, keep reading.
While the organic label indicates that a product meets certain government
standards, those standards are coming under pressure as big companies cash
in on the growing demand for organic foods. H. Lee Scott Jr., chief
executive of Wal-Mart Stores, has described organic as "one of the
fastest-growing categories in all of food and in Wal-Mart."

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.

The Massachusetts-based Organic Trade Association (OTA), which represents
large and small food producers including corporate giants such as Kraft
Foods and Archer Daniels Midland Co., supported the amendment. "The issue is
whether processed products could use a list of benign synthetic ingredients
already approved by the National Organic Standards Board," says Katherine
DiMatteo, executive director of the OTA, "and we do not believe standards
will be weakened at all."

Not all organic producers agree, however. Executives at Earthbound Farm,
which has been in the organic business for more than 20 years and is the
nation's leading supplier of specialty organic salad greens, were startled
to find their company's name on an OTA letter supporting the amendment.
Earthbound objects to built-in "emergency exemptions" that would allow
nonorganic ingredients in organically labeled food if the organic
alternative is considered "commercially unavailable." As with the Georgia
chicken-feed case, if organic corn is expensive because it's in short
supply, a soup maker might argue that it is commercially unavailable and get
an exemption to use nonorganic corn.

"This presents a risk to the integrity of the organic label that we would
have preferred not to see," says Charles Sweat, chief operating officer at
Earthbound Farm.

Other changes in the organic industry are occurring more quietly in the farm
fields. Wal-Mart alone gobbles up so much of the organic dairy supply that
some producers that have historically accounted for the bulk of organic
products on the market haven't been able to meet the new demand. Suppliers
filling the gap are doing so in part by exploiting loopholes in the organic
rules, some consumer advocates say.

Organic Valley, a Wisconsin-based national cooperative of farmers that had
been one of Wal-Mart's primary suppliers of organic milk, ended that direct
relationship at the end of 2004. "When the first U.S. case of mad cow was
discovered in a dairy cow at the end of 2003," says Theresa Marquez, chief
marketing executive at Organic Valley, "demand for organic milk spiked and
we've been in a short-supply situation ever since, with demand growing at 25
percent annually and supply growing at only 10 percent."

With supplies limited, Marquez says, the company decided to "stay true to
our mission" and give top priority to filling orders from natural-food
markets, its oldest customers, leaving it to Horizon Organic and other large
competitors to "duke it out figuring out how to service Wal-Mart."

Horizon Organic is an organic dairy company that was acquired in 2003 by
Dean Foods, the leading U.S. dairy processor. Its operations range in size
from a 12-cow farm in Vermont to a 4,000-cow operation in Idaho, where
animals may be confined in outdoor corrals and given organic feed, grasses,
and hay. They graze in open pastures only on a rotating basis instead of
primarily grazing in open pastures, as cows are required to do on farms that
supply Organic Valley.

Current federal regulations state that organically raised animals must have
access to pasture and may be temporarily confined only for reasons of
health, safety, the animal's stage of production, or to protect soil or
water quality." But that vague language allows large producers to cut
corners and compromise on what consumers expect from organic food, consumer
advocates say.

The regulations also leave open questions about whether dairy animals could
have been treated with antibiotics or consumed feed containing genetically
modified grain or animal byproducts prior to becoming part of an organic
dairy farm.

Horizon says it uses no antibiotics or growth hormones in its organic herd,
though it can't control what animals eat before they arrive there. And the
company says it plans to upgrade its Idaho farm to offer more pasture by
2007. In the meantime, Horizon says, its cows are being kept in good health
and treated humanely. "We permit cows to exercise and exhibit natural
behaviors," says Kelly Shea, director of government and industry relations
at Horizon. "We would never support lowering the standards."

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.

Joseph Rosen, a professor of food science at Rutgers University, says that
when it comes to pesticide exposure, "the amount in conventional foods is so
low that it's not a health threat." Richard Wiles, senior vice president at
the EWG, on the other hand, says that the cumulative effect of even
low-level multiple pesticide exposures is both worrisome and little studied
at this point.

BUYING ORGANIC ON THE CHEAP

If you decide that you'd prefer fewer chemicals and other addititives in
your food, the choice isn't an easy one. Organic sticker shock can hit the
most stalwart of organic shoppers. The fact is that organic farmers produce
more labor-intensive products and don't enjoy the economies of scale or
government subsidies that their big brothers in agribusiness do. But we
found many ways to save on the cost of organic products.

Comparison shop. Do a price check among local grocery stores for often
purchased organic items and shop where you find the lowest prices. In the
New York City area, for example, we found a 4-ounce jar of Earth's Best
organic baby food for as little as 69 cents and as much as $1.29. When it
comes to fresh produce, remember that you'll save by buying it in season.

Go local. You can find organic growers at most farmer's markets, and a USDA
study in 2002 found that about 40 percent of those farmers don't charge a
premium. For listings of local farmer's markets and other sources, go to
www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets and www.localharvest.org.

Join the farm team. Buy a share in a community-supported organic farm and
you'll get a weekly supply of produce from spring until fall. The cost to
feed a family of four generally ranges from $300 to $500 for the season.
(Some farms also require you to work a few hours a month distributing or
picking produce.) The savings can be substantial. A price study by a
community-supported farm in the Northeast showed that the average $10 weekly
cost for a shareholder's produce supply almost always beat farmer's market
organic prices and often cost less than the same nonorganic items at a
supermarket. Go to www.sare.org for a list of community-supported farms.

Order by mail. National providers will ship items such as organic beef
(www.mynaturalbeef.com). Some local businesses, such as FreshDirect
(www.freshdirect.com) in the New York City area and Pioneer Organics
(www.pioneerorganics.com) in the Pacific Northwest, offer home deliveries.
Other helpful sites are at www.eatwellguide.org and www.theorganicpages.com.

Be a supermarket spy. Make sure you get what you pay for by watching where
produce sits on shelves. All grocers are legally required to stack organic
fruits and vegetables where they won't be exposed to water runoff from the
misting of conventional produce, which could contaminate organic items with
pesticide residue. If a store is not following that rule, you may be wasting
your money by buying organic produce there.