For those who want to shop smart when it comes to food, it’s important to understand that food labeling is often a product of marketing, not better health.
No word is more abused by the food industry than “organic.” The term is slapped on everything from carrots, tomatoes, chickens and beef to, uh, Twinkies. In many cases, it’s next to meaningless in terms of helping shoppers identify products with health benefits.
At Acabonac Farms, we understand the confusion. That’s why we always explain to our customers that our cattle are grass-fed and pasture-finished. We never use growth-promoting hormones or antibiotics on cattle or pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides on the farm.
However, that’s a far cry from much of the food labeled organic in the grocery store.
The Washington Post, in writing about the organic labeling issue, put it plainly: “Marketing can be misleading. Product packages can bear over inflated claims about health benefits to make foods sound more nutritious than they are.”
However, the Post also noted that shoppers are becoming savvier, as more information is available on the Internet.
Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) inspector general's office reported in 2017 that the organic labeling from the federal government does not mean what shoppers think.
For example, food imported from other countries is often fumigated at the U.S. port of entry, using the same chemicals that are used for non-organic food. The head of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) resigned 10 days before the report came out.
The report also found that the standards for labeling food organic was not transparent and that in some cases documentation was not complete.
Again, all this is very different than buying vegetables and meat from local farmers who practice truly organic methods.
A Real Battle
In an interview on the Sustainable Dish podcast, Dave Chapman of Longwind Farms in Vermont said the food industry is engaged in “a real battle here, it’s a serious thing. It involves the food that millions of people are eating.
“As it’s going right now, we are losing the national organic program, I’m sorry to say. You can’t trust the vegetables, you can’t trust the meat, you can’t trust the milk, and you can’t trust the eggs.”
Chapman said the issues center on the fact that industrial food giants have moved into the organic space, where annual sales have reached $47 billion. The demand from shoppers for more organic products has driven growth in the organic industry.
But Chapman said that has led to a growing number of issues, most of it centered on the standards of local farmers versus those of large food companies moving into the organic space. The board that governs the NOP has been stacked with representatives from big companies that have lowered the standards for organic labeling, Chapman said.
Chapman and others have pointed out there is a long list of chemicals that the NOP allows to be used on products labeled as organic. You can judge for yourself by reviewing the USDA’s list of Synthetic Substances Allowed for Use in Organic Crop Production.
What People Can Do
The first step is to educate yourself on the current state of the standards for labeling a product “organic certified.” It’s also important to try to determine where your food came from.
Chapman pointed out that hydroponic vegetables can be labeled “organic,” which is antithetical to the very idea of organic. Organic begins with care of the soil. Chapman points out that a nutrient-rich soil is really the “first crop” for farmers.
Organic is “about creating and maintaining a fertile and healthy soil. In a way, that’s the first crop for farmers and ranchers. Everything that is grown or fed from grass grown in that soil is the second crop,” he said.
The easiest solution for smart shoppers is to support local farmers who are committed to true organic methods - no chemicals of any kind, ever. Knowing where your food comes from, cutting down on the miles it has to travel, and knowing the farmer is both local and truly organic can lead to food purchases that are truly healthy.