Organic Food: To Buy or Not To Buy
On the quest to nourish our kids, the word “organic” has become a primary focus for many of us moms. Yet, despite all of the regulatory hype you read about in the papers and online, organic standards are far from universal. In fact, they can be downright confusing unless you aced high school biology or are familiar with foreign regulation policy, ultimately raising the question: When we dish out extra dough to buy organic, are we getting what we paid for? I hope to answer some of these questions for you here.
According to the USDA, there are six countries and 40-plus programs that meet the national standards of certification based on a list of regulated chemicals and ingredients that can be used on crops. And as long as the food in question is given the green light by the National Organics Standards Board, then you should generally feel confident in the integrity of the product despite its place of origin.
Imported products that are pre-certified as organic prior to entering the country, however, are another story. In this case, food exporters have the option of working with the USDA and their homeland government to certify products as organic, and quality control can become a problem.
In the absence of proper standards, we become susceptible to “organic fraud,” and it can affect shoppers from Wal-Mart to Trader Joes and Whole Foods, all of who carry imported snacks and canned foods. Despite USDA-approved foreign organic inspectors, pesticide testing isn’t required on many of these products—in ’06, less than two percent were examined.
European standards are somewhat similar to those established in the United States, prohibiting the use of many of the same chemicals and antibiotics come harvest. Not all nations are as strict as those in Europe though, including Brazil, Sierra Leone and China. In China, for example, organic products sell for nearly five times the price of non-organic food, increasing manufacturer’s incentives to commit organic-fraud.
So, as a mom, how can you be sure that the can of soup or that box of cereal really is 100 percent organic?
Some specialty food stores, like Trader Joes and Whole Foods, are taking measures to visit their vendors in foreign nations to ensure they meet proper standards. Both markets also voluntarily label the country-of-origin on their packaging so that the consumer can be sure of where their food is coming from. Stores such as Wal-Mart are yet to go to these lengths.
Shopping at smaller, specialty stores, and looking for the US stamp of approval, are good places to start. Scrutinize the organic certifications just as you would any nutrition label, accounting for organic indications as you would calories and sugar. And remember, it’s not the end of the world if something turns out to be non-organic. Because, between our kids, our jobs, and whatever slim social life we have, we can’t always be super-mom. But we can certainly try and hope that buying organic will promote sustainable farming and the message that moms want chemical free food for our kids.