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Organic Foods

The market for “organic” food products in the United States hit $10 billion in 2003; the 1980 figure was a mere $178 million. According to U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, food certified as organic must be produced without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth hormones, feed taken from animal parts, or antibiotics. Often associated with health food stores, including large national chains like Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats Natural Marketplace, organic and “natural” foods are starting to show up in major conventional supermarkets and even mega-retailers like Wal-Mart. In addition to the USDA, a variety of associations and organizations on the state, federal and international level certify farms and producers as “organic” based on a variety of criteria.

No legal or administrative standards apply to the widespread use in food marketing of the term “natural,” though in general it connotes a freedom from additives. The term “fresh” can be deceptive, generally guaranteeing only that a product has not been frozen, no matter how old or stale it may be. The terms “healthy” and “light” or “lite” have also few constraints. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors and controls the claims by food providers that their products may prevent specific health concerns or diseases.

Organic products, and free-range meats and poultry, can often cost up to twice as much as conventional products. Consumers pay more for organic fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meats and baby food for a number of reasons: freedom from chemicals, a desire to support sustainable agriculture and humane animal production, or simply a cultural leaning (including a desire to support the “fair trade” movement around the world). Skeptics claim that the faint traces of pesticides that remain on many of these food products have little if any effect on the health of the consumer. Adherents differ of course; even without hard scientific proof, many consumers would “rather be safe than sorry.” They also frequently believe that organic fruits and vegetables taste better.

There is some evidence that chemical residues in conventional fruits and fresh produce can be harmful to infants and young children. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) studies indicate, however, that meats and grains test at much lower levels. In the case of meats in particular, the primary residue found, mostly in the fat, comes from chemicals like the insecticide DDT that have been banned for many years but that remain in the eco-system, a problem organic farming cannot truly correct. Industry groups that support conventional farming also claim that modern pesticides and fertilizers do far less damage than their predecessor products.

There is a perception that organic farms are generally small, run by dedicated, “back to nature” operators, but that is not necessarily true. In central California, the heart of America’s largest agricultural production region, five organic growers are responsible for half of the $400 million in organic produce the state supplies to the rest of the nation. Organic foods are big business, long evolved from the days of maverick “hippie” farmers tilling small plots with loving attention. Craft and artisanal producers are still active, of course, across the breadth of the United States, but it pays for consumers to look into where their food comes from with some care, no matter how it is labeled. The large “natural” chains like Whole Foods and Wild Oats do an excellent job in allowing consumers to do this kind of research on the products they carry.

National health concerns do arise because of the prevalence of manure and compost-based fertilizers in organic farms, especially those operations that are of extremely large scale. A spate of food contamination cases in 2006 involved deadly botulism caused by organic carrot juice, deaths and sicknesses caused by E. coli bacteria shipped nationwide in organic California spinach, and other E. coli incidents linked to un-pasteurized organic milk. A study by the Center for Global Food Issues, an organization that frequently defends conventional agriculture against the inroads of the organic movement, found that organic food, which accounts for about one percent of food consumption in the United States, is linked to a full eight percent of confirmed cases of E. coli infection. Whether or not the E. coli issue will affect the long-term growth of the market for organic food remains to be seen.