Conscientious shoppers seeking healthy, environmentally sound food choices are confronted every day by a messy and nearly indecipherable barrage of buzzwords, labels, and symbols. With the proliferation of certifications and stamps, discerning precisely which foods adhere to what standards, who sets those standards, and who enforces them can be nearly impossible. To help, we’ve tried to break down these mysterious terms as simply as possible.
Organic: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) arbitrates organic certification at the national level. Ever since October 2002, the USDA Organic seal has appeared on crops, livestock, and processed foods that meet the standards set forth by the National Organic Program. In short, organic crops are free of irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms; organic livestock are raised without the use antibiotics or growth hormones, and provided with 100% organic feed and access to the outdoors. Straightforward enough.
The USDA accredits local organizations (either state agencies or private companies) that actually handle the certifications. 16 states have their own agencies — usually each state’s respective Department of Agriculture — that are responsible for regulating USDA certification within their borders. These states occasionally tack on their own requirements for certification in addition to the what the USDA stipulates. But only one state — California — requires certification from its own organic program in addition to the USDA’s, which makes sense considering that California’s Central Valley is responsible for a large percentage of the nation’s total agricultural output.
This year the USDA initiated the Organic Survey, which is the Department’s attempt to take a “complete inventory of all known organic producers that are certified, exempt from certification, and transitioning to certified organic production.” The survey, which will examine everything from the methods used in the production of organic agriculture to the industry’s marketing practices, comes at a time when demand for organic produce, dairy, and meat has never been higher among consumers. The Department’s last such survey, its 2012 Census of Agriculture, found that the total organic product from American ranches and farms increased 83 percent between 2007 and 2012.
It’s here that socially-conscious consumers find themselves facing another pickle in the produce aisle. Much organic food, for all its virtues, is under the sway of Big Agra, some of whose emissaries have sat on the National Organics Standards Board, which makes recommendations about which chemicals and additives can be considered “organic,” diluting the word’s integrity in many shoppers’ eyes. The notions of responsible, healthy food production that organic consumers desire from their growers are not exactly evoked by the likes of Kraft, PepsiCo, and General Mills.
Local: Enter “local.” Demand for locally-sourced organic produce has soared in the last seven years, according to a USDA study, which found that shoppers valued locally-produced agriculture for a cornucopia of reasons: local food is seen as being healthier and fresher, having lasting environmental benefits, contributing to local economies, and offering more variety.
But according to a 2010 report commissioned by the USDA, findings on local food’s economic, nutritional, and environmental benefits were all inconclusive. Despite the confidence consumers ostensibly have in the integrity of buying local, in 2011, more than half of local food sales came from farmers selling exclusively via intermediaries such as restaurants and grocery stores, as opposed to direct-to-consumer methods like farmers markets and CSAs. Which means that essentially, a lot of shoppers were taking the store’s or chef’s word for it.
You see, “local” is a non-enforceable concept. Unlike organic, which has very clearly articulated guidelines, even if they are not up to every consumer’s standards, there is no set definition for “local.” Organic certification standards may be flawed, but they are written in black and white. To further muddle matters, a study conducted in 2011 and whose results were published last year showed that several consumers mistakenly conflate and confuse the meanings of “local” and “organic.”
Natural: And there is yet another signifier of healthy, responsible food that gets tossed around by marketers: “Natural.” Careful with this one. It doesn’t really mean anything at all, not officially anyway. There is a nascent, Brooklyn-based non-profit organization, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), described as “a grassroots alternative to Certified Organic,” whose requirements and system of certification are loosely based on the USDA’s Organic model. According to their website, over 700 farms and apiaries are CNG Certified. (Just to really complicate things, there is also Natural Food Certifiers, but they’re actually just one of the companies that is accredited to give USDA Organic certification.)
Perhaps the best move is a to maintain a degree of healthy skepticism for all stamps and certifications. The late great comedian George Carlin cut to the heart of the issue in his timeless routine on the pitfalls and duplicities of food labels: “The word ‘natural’ is completely meaningless. Everything is ‘natural.’ ‘Nature’ includes everything. It’s not just trees and flowers. It’s everything.”
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