Organic Rules Face USDA Scrutiny

Organic Rules Face USDA Scrutiny

In the Whole Foods Market at Old Keene Mill Center, Ricardo Sanchez was arranging produce, making sure that organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables were separated.

Sometimes the store’s staff use plastic cartons as a barrier, he said. Other times, the produce was wrapped.

"We use this as a divider, it's a barrier," he said, pointing to the bagged carrots. A physical barrier blocks the chemicals and other by-products of non-organic farming from touching the organic produce. All their shelves have been rearranged to have organic in one area and conventional produce in the other area.

That wasn’t always the case in America’s grocery stores. Calling food "organic" was getting to be as common as "new and improved.”

The term appeared on so many food labels that it was in danger of becoming meaningless. So the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed the national standards for the production, handling, and processing of organically grown agricultural products.

“This is the strongest and most comprehensive organic standard in the world,” Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said, as he announced the National Organic Program ruling on Dec. 20, 2000. The rules were slowly put into action until the full implementation deadline of Oct. 21, 2002.

The new standard defines "organic" and details the "methods, practices and substances that can be used in producing and handling organic crops and livestock, as well processed products. It establishes clear organic labeling criteria, and specifically prohibits the use of genetic engineering methods, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge for fertilization," according to the USDA.

“AS LONG AS it keeps the two products from touching,” said Jenna Van Hook, community liaison for Whole Foods, formerly Fresh Fields. She pointed to procedures back at the deli. "We can't even use the same knife," she said.

According to USDA guidelines, there are three categories, "100 percent organic," "organic" and "made with organic (specified ingredients)."

The first category means that the food “must contain only organically produced raw or processed material excluding water and salt."

Simply being “organic” means that at least 95 percent of the food contains organically produced ingredients, and “made with organic ingredients” means that at least 70 percent of the food is organic.

Whole Foods customers Mary Dolby McDonald, of Falls Church, and Amy Walker of Reston, weren't so sure about the labels. They work in Springfield and frequently come to Whole Foods. When it comes to buying produce, however, they don’t always look at what category a food is.

"I come here because the fruits and vegetables are nicer, but if I see the bananas are five cents cheaper somewhere else, I'm going to buy the cheaper ones. They're all organic as far as I'm concerned," McDonald said.

Walker had heard of the new organic regulations, but was skeptical before the government took action. "I have not been trusting that it was really organic. I knew a vegetable distributor and he said that the organic stuff is a bunch of malarkey," she said.

Van Hook said the customers caused the USDA rules. "USDA did this because the public was demanding it," she said.

She was notified of the rules by their vice president of government affairs. The regulations affect the growers to a greater extent than the stores. If it costs them more, they may pass down the expense to the consumers.

"It's really for the food producers. If we are paying more for the food, it will affect the prices. This has been taking effect for 18 months," Van Hook said.

HARRIS TEETER in Fairfax is another upscale grocer that deals in organic products, but not to the extent of Whole Foods. Jimmy Mullen, co-manager of the store, was aware of the new regulations pertaining to organic foods but deferred questions to their corporate office. Company spokesperson Jessica Graham, said the company was familiar with the ruling. They are launching a new line of their own food products, "HT Naturals."

"We are aware of the regulations, we have been keeping a close eye on them and we are in full compliance," Graham said.

STARBUCKS COFFEE also comes in organic varieties, such as the "Serena Organic Blend." According to their brochure "Commitment To Origins," "it takes three years for a coffee farm to be certified organic. Coffee (or any other crop) grown during this time is said to be in transition.”

The coffee is a blend of Latin American and East African coffee. The chain also says that "Starbucks roasting plants are certified organic by the Washington State Department of Agriculture."

Megan Behrbaum, a representative at their headquarters in Seattle, is aware of the organic changes.

"Our organic coffee is certified through a third party. Both our coffee department and our regulatory affairs people feels that we are in compliance," she said.