Is Your Organic Food Really Organic?

organic, local, labels, locavore, permaculture, USDA, organic label, china, toxins, pesticidesThe USDA has announced that they are putting 15 out of 30 federally accredited organic certifiers they audited on probation, allowing them 12 months to make corrections or lose their accreditation. At the heart of the problems were imported foods and ingredients from other countries, including China.

Chinese imports have made headlines for contaminated pet food, toxic toys, and recently, certified organic ginger contaminated with levels of a pesticide called aldicarb that can cause nausea, headaches and blurred vision. The ginger, sold under the 365 label at Whole Foods Market, contained a level of aldicarb not even permissible for conventional ginger, let alone organics.

The Chinese government does not allow foreigners to inspect Chinese farms, and even if a Chinese inspector notices illegal pesticide use, he or she might feel pressured to stay silent.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

It’s been said that the ultimate form of flattery is imitation. But this has obvious drawbacks when it comes to food. The unfortunate side-effect of the popularity of healthier fare and organic food is that many are tempted to cheat just to cash in on the rising trend. 

You used to be able to count on an organic seal to be a fairly reliable indicator of a high-quality food. But recently attitudes toward organic foods have shifted, and this is a direct result of big business jumping into the fray. 

America’s largest corporations, eager to gain market share in the natural foods movement, have begun mass-producing “organic” foods, and as a result are slowly deteriorating the meaning and health benefits upon which the organic label was founded. 

Buy Local, and Organic 

Buying local is therefore quickly becoming the “new organic” because it supports many of the things that the organic label once did, such as: 

  • Fresher, tastier and more nutritious food
  • Supporting small, local farmers within your community
  • Improved food safety
  • Environmentally-friendly, sustainable farming practices (provided the grower is using organic growing practices, regardless of whether or not they’re accredited USDA organic, which can be a costly process) 

I just ran a story about supermarkets expanding their local produce sections, which doesn’t automatically mean it’s organic, but it’s definitely convenient for consumers and limits environmental pollution. Likewise, store-bought organics may not be equal in quality as produce from a local organic farmer, but when you can't make it out to a farm or a farmers market, they too can be a reasonable alternative.  If they’re truly organic, that is.  

And therein lays the problem.  

Are those store-bought “organic” veggies from China truly organic? The recent actions by the USDA indicate there’s probably a 50/50 chance they don’t meet organic standards. 

It’s easy to become discouraged with the entire business of organics, and begin to fret about ever being able to get your hands on truly healthy food. But as I said the other day in “Buying Local Should Include Buying Organic,” the ground rules for healthy food shopping have never changed, merely the labels. 

High-Quality, Healthy Food Shopping Guidelines 

Whatever food you’re looking to buy, whether imported organic or locally-grown, from either your local supermarket or a farmer’s market, here are the signs of a high-quality, healthy food: 

  1. It’s grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers (organic foods fit this description, but so do some non-organic foods)
  2. It’s not genetically modified
  3. It contains no added growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs
  4. It does not contain artificial anything, nor any preservatives
  5. It is fresh (if you have to choose between wilted organic produce or fresh conventional produce, the latter may be the better option)
  6. It did not come from a factory farm
  7. It is grown with the laws of nature in mind (meaning animals are fed their native diets, not a mix of grains and animal byproducts, and have free-range access to the outdoors)
  8. It is grown in a sustainable way (using minimal amounts of water, protecting the soil from burnout, and turning animal wastes into natural fertilizers instead of environmental pollutants)

If the food meets these criteria, it is likely a good choice. The bottom line is that you need to look deeper than a label when it comes to your food. Most often, the best place to find these foods are from a sustainable agricultural group in your area.  

If you want total control, you could do what many of my readers have already done: start your own organic garden.

Raising the Bar on What Healthy Food is

For those of you who shop at the growing number of farmers markets around the United States, the status of organics from China is less relevant. The movement of “locavores,” which has helped spur the rise in farmers markets, includes principles beyond just pesticide-free food. It’s also about supporting small farmers and ensuring that food is produced in an environmentally-friendly manner, by workers who are paid fair wages.

But there’s yet another growing movement underway that you may not be familiar with yet. It’s called permaculture – a grown-up version of the organic, locally-grown food movement – which I believe is the real future of healthy food. Michael Pollan, the New York Times author who wrote the book Omnivore's Dilemma, does a great job of explaining in this video

 At its roots is a focus on the relationships between animals, plants, insects, soil, water and habitat -- and how to use these relationships to create synergistic, self-supporting ecosystems.  Permaculture strives to mimic the natural ecologies found in nature, and food that is grown by these natural laws will inherently be healthy.

Healthy Resources

For more information on where to find wholesome food from community supported agriculture (CSA) farms, check out this link, and for a list of grass-fed beef ranchers in the U.S. where you can find good-quality meats, please review my previous article The Selling of Organic.

Organic Labels

Last but not least, there are a few different organic labels out there. Only one relates directly to foods: the USDA Organic seal. However, as a health conscious consumer, you’re likely also concerned about the organic standards of other products as well, such as personal care products. Here’s a rundown of the four main organic labels out there and what they mean.

USDA Organic Seal – The USDA Organic seal is your best assurance of organic quality, and it's the international gold standard for organic personal care. Where personal care products are concerned, if you don’t see the USDA Certified Organic seal, the word “organic” doesn’t mean a thing. It must specify USDA to be meaningful. The ingredients in USDA certified beauty products are certified organic for food, adhering to much stricter standards as they are intended specifically for human consumption.

Growers and manufacturers of organic products bearing the USDA seal have to meet the strictest standards of any of the currently available organic labels, and I'm pleased to share that my new certified organic skincare and cosmetics line will be one of only five companies in the U.S. to achieve USDA Organic certification.

The USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) took effect October 21, 2002, and regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced. The labeling requirements of the NOP apply to raw, fresh products and processed products that contain organic agricultural ingredients.

In order to qualify as organic, a product must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.

Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones.

  • Products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced materials
  • Products labeled simply "organic" must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients, whereas
  • the label "made with organic ingredients" can contain anywhere between 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients

Organic products cannot be irradiated, are not allowed to contain preservatives or flavor enhancing chemicals, nor can they contain traces of heavy metals or other contaminants in excess of of tolerances set by the FDA. The pesticide residue level cannot be higher than 5 percent of the maximum EPA pesticide tolerance.

For the complete National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances under the USDA organic label, see this link.

Personal care products bearing the USDA organic seal must contain at least 95 percent certified-organic ingredients, and cannot contain added sulfites.

Natural Products Association Seal Natural Products Association Seal
Must contain at least 95 percent natural ingredients. Synthetic ingredients are allowed only if they have no suspected health risks.
EcoCert Seal EcoCert Seal
Must contain at least 95 percent natural ingredients. At least 10 percent of all ingredients must be certified-organic. Packaging must be recyclable. No petroleum, animal materials or artificial fragrances are allowed.
Whole Foods Market Premium Body Care Seal Whole Foods Market Premium Body Care Seal
More than 250 ingredients have been deemed unacceptable and cannot be used, including parabens, sodium laurel sulfates and chemical sunscreens. Maximum of 5 percent petroleum is allowed.

+ Sources and References