Organic Consumers Association

Organic foods become big business

Recently, organic food products got their first federal seal of approval.

No longer will shoppers have to guess whether organically produced California grapes, Texas beef or Florida citrus have the same level of organic ingredients.

For the first time since a small band of farmers began experimenting with organic fruits and veggies a generation ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will label foods according to what percentage is grown or raised without pesticides, antibiotics, altered genes, growth hormones or chemical fertilizers. It’s called National Organic Standards.

“The National Organic Standards will give assurance to people who want to make sure what they are buying has been produced organically,” said Barbara Haumann, a senior writer for the Organic Trade Association.

The organic food market has become fatter than a ripe tomato, growing at 20 to 24 percent a year – or about five times faster than food sales as a whole, according to the Organic Trade Association. In fact, the USDA projects $20 billion in organic food sales by 2005, up from a projected $9.5 billion in 2002, and about $1 billion in 1990.

Organic is everywhere

Today, you can find organic milk, yogurt, eggs, bread, pasta, poultry, pizzas, coffee, tea, wine, beer, chips, salsa – even catnip and dog biscuits.

The new labels will tell consumers just how natural that food is:

  • 100 percent organic: Only organically produced ingredients are in the product.
  • Organic: Contains 95 to 99 percent organically produced ingredients. Food may contain spices or flavorings that are nonorganic.
  • Made with organic ingredients: At least 70 percent organic ingredients.
  • Some organic ingredients: Below 70 percent.

These standards have been a long time coming.

In the 1980s, the Alar scare awakened people to the dangers of pesticides. Alar was a hormone sprayed on apples to stop fruit from falling but was pulled from the market in 1989 when a test found it caused cancer in mice.

Since then, concerns about the environment, food safety and health have increased the popularity of organic foods.

But as demand increased, so did confusion over what “organic” really meant. Different states had different standards, and they varied even within states. People turned to Congress for a definition, asking for a new law.

“Farmers, environmental groups and consumers actually petitioned Congress for the law,” says Barbara Robinson, deputy administrator for the Agricultural Marketing Service. She oversees the National Organic Program.

Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, telling the Department of Agriculture to establish national standards to assure consumers of consistency when purchasing organic items.

“They gave us 1-1/2 years to come up with the standards, and we took 10 years,” Robinson said. “A lot of people had a lot to say about it.”

In fact, the original proposed law proffered by the USDA in 1997 drew 275,000 angry responses “telling us we didn’t get it right,” she said. “So we tried again.”

The 1997 proposal would have allowed the use of sewage sludge fertilizer, genetically modified foods and irradiated foods. The new rules exclude those three provisions.

The standards were first published in 2000. Farmers and food processors seeking an organic seal had 18 months to convert their farms or portions of them to organic methods and to handle organic products separately.

Margaret Wittenberg, vice president of governmental and public affairs at Whole Foods Markets, the nation’s largest natural and organic foods market chain, credits gardening, healthier lifestyles and environmental concerns with organic farming’s popularity.

“Many people are gardeners, and that has brought organic home,” Wittenberg said. “Some of it is related to environmental issues the media bring up, polluted water and loss of land. People put two and two together and asked if there isn’t another way.”

Flavor is another factor. Over the years, chefs have turned to organic produce, seeking the freshest and most flavorful ingredients.

“Taste is individual and subjective, but many people say that organic products – especially the produce – have terrific full flavor,” Wittenberg said.

Lettuce, carrots and beans are the top-selling organic vegetables, according to Packer’s 2002 Fresh Trends Report. Top-selling fruits include strawberries, Valencia oranges, apples, grapefruits and lemons, Progressive Grocer magazine reports.

Fruits, vegetables, meats and poultry will wear the new labels first. (The new rules require 100 percent organic feed for livestock and prohibit antibiotics and growth hormones in animals. Livestock handlers must allow their animals access to the outdoors.)

Manufactured products such as pasta sauces, salad dressings, popcorn and soft drinks will gradually follow, some as soon as next month.

Whole Foods Markets, for example, has several new products in its 365 Organic line ready to hit the shelves within the next four or five weeks, including olive oil, pasta, frozen fruit and vegetables and organic orange juice.

Some organic groups are pleased with the federal standards yet concerned about organic farming becoming big business.

Concern for small farms

“We agree that it’s a celebration, but we have concerns,” said Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Certified Organic Growers and Consumers Inc. “Our concern is how the smaller and family farms will continue to survive as you see industrialized organic products on the market shelf.”

The price of organically grown vegetables, such as broccoli, may give the organic farmer more of a return on his produce, but “if you see thousands of broccoli organically grown, then the price will come down.”

As the organic market booms, big food manufacturers have stepped in. General Mills purchased Small Planet Foods, which produces two organic lines, while H.J. Heinz has just introduced organic ketchup.

With large corporations getting into the organic business, the laws of supply and demand would say prices would come down, said Robinson, but no one knows to what levels.

“We tend to think organic foods are more expensive because organic farming is more labor intensive. But that isn’t always the case,” she said.

Copyright © 2002 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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