A customer scans the expiration dates on gallons of milk...

A customer scans the expiration dates on gallons of milk at a Safeway grocery store in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 20, 2007. Credit: Getty Images

Concern about the safety and value of the food we eat is motivating more and more shoppers to fill their grocery carts with food labeled "organic." According to USDA statistics, annual spending on organic food and drinks has jumped from about $1 billion to $28 billion in the past 20 years. But how is organic defined, and is it always the healthiest choice?

1. If a product is labeled organic, it hasn't been exposed to herbicides or pesticides.

Only the "100% Organic" label guarantees the U.S. Department of Agriculture's definition of organic. That means meat, eggs and dairy products are free of antibiotics and growth hormones; produce is grown with fertilizers free of synthetic or sewage components; and no genetically modified organisms are part of the product. But the label doesn't necessarily mean zero pesticides or herbicides.

Other factors contribute to whether food meets the USDA's varying organic definitions and those followed by organic purists: What's in the water used to irrigate the crop? What might waft over a field from nearby factory smokestacks? What pesticides drift onto crops from adjacent conventional farms? What GMO crops pollute organic fields? Last year a field of conventionally grown wheat in Oregon was corrupted by GMO wheat, and Jackson County residents responded by voting to ban genetically modified farming.

For products with the USDA "organic" label, only 95 percent of the ingredients must be organic. There are about 200 non-organic substances producers can to add to food without sacrificing the organic claim. And that non-organic 5 percent could be sprayed with herbicides and pesticides. The other 95 percent could be exposed to USDA-approved biological or botanical pest controls - or even chemicals from a list of allowable compounds poisonous to weeds and bugs but supposedly safe for people.

Products with the label "made with organic ingredients" can have as little as 70 percent organic content. Consider a bag of corn chips made with organic corn and non-organic oil: Since about 25 percent of a chip is oil, the processed product meets the government standard.

2. Organic food is better for you.

It is logical to think that organic food is healthier if it is relatively free of most herbicides and pesticides. The residue of such poisons on conventional food is not supposed to be a danger to human health, but since they kill weeds and pests - and accumulate in human bodies - it makes sense to avoid the chemicals.

Whether organic food is more nutritious is another question. While the American Academy of Pediatrics says that lower pesticide levels in organic foods could reduce the risk of ingesting drug-resistant bacteria, "in the long term, there is currently no direct evidence that consuming an organic diet leads to improved health or lower risk of disease." And a controversial 2012 Stanford University study reported that it's a waste of money to pay more for the organic label in an attempt to buy the most nutritious food available. "There isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health," wrote Dena Bravata, the study's lead researcher. However, critics of that study's conclusions point out that the researchers narrowly defined "more nutritious" as containing more vitamins.

3. Organic food is better for the environment.

There's no question that keeping farmland free of pesticides is better for the environment. So are other aspects of organic farming, such as crop rotation and periodically allowing land to lie fallow. But just because food is organic doesn't mean its production and distribution are necessarily good for the environment. Consider a can of organic black beans from Bolivia, a bag of organic rice from China or a box of organic apricots from Armenia. Transporting such products to your neighborhood grocery store creates a carbon footprint much bigger than transporting locally grown products.

Additionally, converting natural habitat to vast tracts of farmland can harm local flora and fauna. Coastline-preserving mangroves in Southeast Asia are ripped out, for example, to make space for palm-oil plantations, rice paddies and coconut farms.

Organic food grown and produced in distant lands may also come to U.S. stores with a social cost. What are the working conditions for the farm laborers and factory employees who tend and process those products? And how fair are their wages?

4. Products labeled organic are inspected to guarantee their purity.

Each apple or asparagus spear isn't checked for its organic veracity, nor is every container filled with processed food and labeled organic approved before it's stocked on market shelves. Such meticulous diligence would be impractical and inefficient.

The inspection process for products labeled organic often is superficial, and it is fraught with inconsistencies and potential conflicts of interest. At least once a year, a third party inspects farms and food manufacturers that claim their wares are organic. The rigor of these visits ranges from simply looking over paperwork to mucking about in the fields to conducting detailed interviews with farm owners and workers, along with processors and transporters. The farmers and food processors inspected pay certifiers for the opportunity to be approved, and the various certifiers compete with one another for business. So, if an inspection is rigorous, a farmer may opt to work with a competing certifier that does a less thorough job.

The official USDA certificates guaranteeing that a product is organic are relatively easy to forge. And because the organic rules are designed for larger-scale commercial operations, mom-and-pop farmstands may be exempt from inspections if they yield no more than $5,000 a year in sales. So, whether food really meets organic standards is more a matter of trusting purveyors than trusting the organic label.

5. Imported products labeled as organic meet U.S. standards.

Food labeled USDA Organic that originates outside the United States is supposed to meet U.S. standards. But the same potential problems confronting domestic certification are exacerbated when food is imported. Employees of the third-party certifiers rarely travel overseas to make inspections. Instead, the certifiers contract with local firms operating in the source countries. Such an extended bureaucratic chain increases the opportunities for fraud and lax enforcement, especially when food is imported from places rife with corruption, such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Food that does not meet U.S. organic standards can also be shipped through third countries with loose regulatory enforcement. Italian authorities point to Malta as a transit point where paperwork is laundered to mark conventional food as organic.

Though sometimes impractical, the best guide when shopping for organic food is: Think globally, but buy locally.

Laufer, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, is the author of "Organic: A Journalist's Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling."


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