Sunday, October 20, 2002

Labeling law `big step' for organic foods

Sometimes, we only think of a new law - especially a new federal law - as bad news. More bureaucrats, more red tape, more tax dollars wasted. But it's difficult to find the downside to a new federal law that goes into effect Monday.

Beginning this week, any food labeled and sold as organic in this country has to meet criteria set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The product of more than 10 years' work and nearly 100 revisions by legislators, consumer and industry groups, the National Organic Rule requires food growers and producers to comply with national standards and establishes guidelines for retail organic food labeling.

This is especially good news for consumers, most agree, because until now, states set their own standards for what qualified as organic. Some had no organic certification standards.

"This is a pretty big step,'' says Mary Millry, senior director of product development and standards for Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Market, which claims to offer the greatest variety of organic products in the country. "Having a regulatory seal is significant.''

Less than 30 years ago, no one cared about regulatory seals for organic products because few people considered eating "organic.'' In post World War II America, chemical fertilizers and pesticides were embraced by commercial food producers and accepted by consumers as safe. But in the early 1970s, the counterculture and environmental movements began preaching the benefits of eating food grown without chemicals.

Those committed to organics joined food cooperatives in order to buy produce. Some composted leaves and food waste in their back yards and planted their own organic gardens.

In the 1990s, organic food products began sprouting in mainstream supermarkets. The U.S. market for organic food grew 15 to 20 percent every year during the last decade, according to Newsweek - five times faster than food sales in general.

Warren Heist noticed the demand for organics at his small neighborhood grocery, Kremer's Market in Crescent Springs, four years ago. He began carrying organic eggs, milk, a few dry goods, fruit and vegetables. Some of the organic produce spoiled at first, Mr. Heist says, because few customers bought it. But they kept asking for it, and he continues to stock his shelves with fresh and packaged organic items, even organic olive oil.

"Some people don't buy it because of the (higher) price,'' he says. "And I don't think a lot of people realize what organic is.''

The new federal regulations will help consumers understand more, says Ms. Millry, who also predicts the law will stimulate interest in organic food, and probably sales. And if the demand for organic product goes up, the prices may continue to come down, she says.

Although flavor and environmental concerns are factors, consumer research from Wild Oats and other organizations show most people - as many as two-thirds - who buy organic do so because of health reasons. They believe organically produced food is healthier because it was grown without added chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides.

Sounds logical, but there is no definitive research that shows eating organic is better for you. Some hope the new regulations and public interest might prompt such long-term studies. But until then, the USDA makes it clear the regulations aren't an endorsement of organic food products. The regulations are just supposed to let consumers know what is organic and what isn't.

And that is most important, says farmer and specialty food retailer Matt Madison. He and his father, Bryan, began growing organic fruit and vegetables in the late 1990s on their farm in Adams County, east of Cincinnati. The Madison's were certified as organic growers by the Ohio Department of Agriculture from 1998 to 2000. But they dropped that certification, which is expensive and tedious to maintain, after being frustrated by the unregulated market place.

"We were going up against growers who said their products were organic,'' Mr. Madison says, "but they didn't bother to get certified.''

But with the new federal regulations, he says, you're either certified as organic or you're not. You can't fudge the issue by claiming your products are "grown organically.'' Those who use "organic'' loosely are subject to a $10,000 fine.

Mr. Madison has decided not to seek federal organic certification. But he and his family will continue to sell organic products from other farms at their stores in Findlay Market and Pleasant Ridge Market.

Even for retailers, the new regulations are strict, he says. If, for instance, he displays lettuce in a produce bin periodically misted with water, the organic greens must be positioned above the non-organics to avoid any "tainted'' drippings.

Still, Mr. Madison believes the new organic regulations are needed. And even though the federal law will cost tax dollars to enforce, it should be money well spent. Now, at least, consumers looking for organic will know what they're getting.