Erin McCaslin, a former CSUN student, picked up a plastic container of strawberries at Whole Foods Market and made sure it had the green and white “USDA Organic” seal on it.
“You never really know what you’re getting,” McCaslin said. “But at least when I buy organic food, I know my family is not eating chemicals and pesticides.”
Like many other consumers of organic foods, McCaslin is wrong.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicates that organic foods contain several of the same pesticides found in conventionally grown foods.
While environmentalists and federal agencies debate the meaning of the term “organic,” consumers are left to their own assumptions about what lies behind the ambiguous label.
“It can be confusing for consumers,” said Jimmy Rodriguez, produce manager at Whole Foods in Glendale.
“The truth is that all foods have pesticides, but organic foods have less synthetic ones.”
In 2002, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) implemented a set of standards that specified the methods, practices and substances that could be used in organic foods.
Synthetic pesticides are chemically based substances that farmers use to kill weeds, mold and insects. They are allowable in organic foods if the substance is listed on the USDA’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
“The amount of synthetic substances allowed in organic foods are much less than the amount found in conventionally grown foods,” said Mark Bradley, the associate deputy administrator at the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services.
“When you buy organic, you are not buying into a guaranteed food safety program. It has more to do with the way the foods are grown and produced.”
To be considered organic, farmers must abide by the USDA’s rigorous farming practices. Unlike conventional farmers, they do not use chemical fertilizers and weed killers. Instead, the organic farmer conducts sophisticated crop rotations to manage weeds.
The NOP indicates that an organic farmer has to adhere to strict land management regulations. For example, a farmer must recultivate the land to ensure that it is devoid of all prohibited substances for at least three years.
NOP-certified agents continually monitor organic farmers to make sure they are not using prohibited chemicals to boost crop production. Organic fruits and vegetables spoil faster in shipment because they are not treated with waxes or preservatives. They may appear in odd shapes and varying colors because they are grown naturally.
“These are all reasons why people buy organic foods,” said NOP-certified agent Jessica Morrison.
“It is very strictly regulated. Being a certified farmer means that the groundwater and soil have been thoroughly inspected and contain no harmful elements to the environment or to people.”
Contrary to popular belief, the term “organic” does not mean that these labeled products are completely pesticide and chemical free. The USDA indicates the organic label means that at least 95 percent of a food’s ingredients are organically produced.
Consumers are often confused by products that contain words like “all-natural,” “free-range” or “hormone-free” in their advertising. These products contain less than 70 percent of organic materials and cannot use the USDA label. They can list organic items on their packaging, but the USDA has not approved those items as allowable organic ingredients.
“I buy eggs and other products that are marked ‘all-natural’ because it sounds like I’m getting the real thing,” McCaslin said.
“All these different labels are very misleading. I’m not sure what I’m getting for my money.”
Organic foods typically cost 10 to 40 percent more than conventionally grown foods. The increase in price is due to more expensive farming practices, tighter government controls and lower crop yields.
In a 2006 survey conducted by the Institute of Food Technologists, 70 percent of consumers said their main reason for paying higher prices for organic products was to avoid pesticides.
“Customers at Whole Foods are willing to pay more for anything stamped ‘organic’ because they think they are getter better quality,” Rodriguez said.
“For the most part, they’re right, but the consumer really has no control over what goes into the organic product.”
The NOP has approved at least 58 synthetic substances, which are currently listed as allowable items for crop production on the USDA’s national list. There are also many more allowable synthetic substances listed for organic packaged goods and in livestock production.
According to the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), multinational corporations heavily support the $35 billion pesticide industry. PANNA is working closely with California Senator Barbara Boxer to ban harmful pesticides but “we’ll see what happens,” said Stephanie Hendricks, communications director at PANNA.
“We are trying to keep organic foods truly organic for the consumer as well as protect the environment,” said Hendricks.
The $17 billion organic industry has seen dramatic growth in the past two decades with sales increasing 20 percent annually since 1990, according to the Institute of Food Technologies. Conventionally grown foods have only increased two percent each year.
Food crises, such as mad cow disease and the recent tomato recall, have caused consumers to move away from conventionally grown foods. Other reasons for the transition include environmental issues and the concern for small farmers who have been pushed out of the business by large corporations.
Jerard Call is an operations assistant at the Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA), which is a non-profit organization that founded the Hollywood Farmer’s Market. His grandfather worked as a small farmer and eventually joined a larger agricultural business.
“My grandfather has seen the transition to large corporations,” said Call as he recapped his childhood memories. “It’s a new game now.”
As organic foods became popular, big businesses jumped on the bandwagon and began lobbying to change the restrictions. As the regulations changed, smaller farmers who used to be considered organic, could no longer produce competitive yields.
Many studies have been conducted to determine the relevance of organic products. The USDA National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances is reviewed and updated every five years. The term “organic” continues to evolve as scientists, environmentalists and government officials debate its definition.
Like many other organic consumers, Erin McCaslin continues to budget the rising cost of organic foods for her family’s shopping list.
“Until I’m told otherwise, I’ll just keep trusting in the organic label,” she said as she scratched “strawberries” off her shopping list.
“Nothing is 100 percent safe. I just have to pick the lesser of two evils.”