The truth about organic ‘certification’: does it help ensure safer foods

The truth about organic ‘certification’: does it help ensure safer foods – or just costlier ones?

Stephen Barrett

“If you as a consumer have a desire to purchase a fake or a fraud of one kind or another, should your government guarantee your right to do so? More than that, is your government obligated to prosecute one who, knowing of your propensity for fraud, tricks you into buying the genuine in place of buying the fake? Remembering that `your government’ is all the rest of us, is it right for you to take our time and money to underwrite such ridiculous exercises as making sure you are cheated when you want to be cheated? And must we penalize the man who breaks his promise to cheat you?”

These astute questions were raised in 1972 by Dick Beeler, editor of Animal Health and Nutrition, who was concerned about laws being adopted in California and Oregon to certify organic” foods. Those laws signaled the beginning of efforts that culminated in 1990 with passage of the U.S. Organic Foods Production Act, which ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set certification standards. Although the USDA had opposed passage of the act, the Alar scare plus a campaign by environmental, consumer, and farm groups persuaded Congress to include it in the 1990 Farm Bill (NF 8:25-29, 1991).

As directed by the law, the secretary of agriculture established a National Organic Standards Board to help develop a list of substances permissible in organic production and handling and to advise the secretary on other aspects of implementing a National Organic Program. In 1992, the secretary appointed 15 people, 8 of whom were industry members. The board held 12 full board meetings and 5 joint committee meetings and received additional input through public hearings and written submissions from interested persons. It presented its recommendations to the secretary in 1994 and issued 30 subsequent addenda.

The Current Marketplace

Total retail sales of the organic industry have reportedly risen from $1 billion in 1990 to $3.5 billion in 1996. “Certified” organic cropland production expanded from 473,000 acres to 667,000 acres between 1992 and 1994 and is expected to reach two million acres by the year 2000. Despite this rapid growth, the organic industry represents a very small percentage of total agricultural production and sales.

The most common concept of “organically grown” food was articulated in 1972 by Robert Rodale, editor of Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, at a public hearing: “Food grown without pesticides; grown without artificial fertilizers; grown in soil whose humus content is increased by the additions of organic matter; grown in soil whose mineral content is increased by the application of natural mineral fertilizers; has not been treated with preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, etc.” However, in 1980, a team of scientists appointed by the USDA concluded that there was no universally accepted definition of “organic farming.” Their report stated:

The organic movement represents a

spectrum of practices, attitudes,

and philosophies. On the one hand

are those organic practitioners who

would not use chemical fertilizers or

pesticides under any circumstances.

These producers hold rigidly to

their purist philosophy. At the

other end of the spectrum, organic

farmers espouse a more flexible

approach. While striving to avoid

the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, these

practitioners do not rule them out

entirely. Instead, when absolutely

necessary, some fertilizers and also

herbicides are very selectively and

sparingly used as a second line of

defense. Nevertheless, these

farmers, too, consider themselves to

be organic farmers.

Today, approximately 4,000 farmers and 600 handlers are certified by 33 private or 11 state agencies. Each certifying agency has its own standards and identifying marks. No industrywide agreement exists about which substances should be permitted or prohibited for organic production and handling.

The Proposed Rule

On December 16, 1997, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service proposed rules for a National Organic Program (Federal Register 62:65850-65967, 1997). The proposal includes: (1) national standards for production and handling, (2) a National List of approved synthetic substances, (3) a certification program, (4) a program for accrediting certifiers, (5) labeling requirements, (6) enforcement provisions, and (7) rules for importing equivalent products. A new USDA seal will be the only permissible marker.

The proposed rule defines organic farming and handling as:

A system that is designed and

managed to produce agricultural

products by the use of methods and

substances that maintain the

integrity of organic agricultural

products until they reach the

consumer. This is accomplished by

using, where possible, cultural,

biological and mechanical methods,

as opposed to using substances, to

fulfill any specific function within

the system so as to: maintain long-term

soil fertility; increase soil biological

activity, ensure effective pest management;

recycle wastes to return nutrients

to the land; provide

attentive care for farm animals;

and handle the agricultural products

without the use of extraneous

synthetic additives or processing

in accordance with the Act and

the regulations in this part.

The weed and pest-control methods to which this refers include crop rotation, hand cultivation, mulching, soil enrichment, and encouraging beneficial predators and microorganisms. If these methods are not sufficient, various listed chemicals can be used. (The list does not include cytotoxic chemicals that are carbon-based.) The proposal does not call for monitoring specific indicators of soil and water quality, but leaves the selection of monitoring activities to the producer in consultation with the certifying agent.

For raising animals, antibiotics are not permitted as growth stimulants but are permitted to counter infections. The rules permit up to 20% of animal feed to be obtained from nonorganic sources. This was done because some nutrients (such as trace minerals) are not always available organically. Irradiation, which can reduce or eliminate certain pests, kill disease-causing bacteria, and prolong food shelf-life, is permitted during processing. Genetic engineering is also permissible.

In an accompanying news release, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman stated:

What is organic? Generally, it is

agriculture produced through a

natural as opposed to synthetic

process. The natural portion of the

definition is fairly obvious, but

process is an equally critical

distinction. When we certify

organic, we are certifying not just a

product but the farming and

handling practices that yield it.

When you buy a certified organic

tomato, for instance, you are buying

the product of an organic farm. And,

consumers are willing to fork over a

little more for that tomato. They’ve

shown that they will pay a premium

for organic food. National standards

are our way of ensuring that

consumers get what they pay for.

More Nutritious?

The USDA proposal applies to all types of agricultural products and all aspects of their production and handling, ranging from soil fertility management to the packaging and labeling of the final product. The document is intended to address production methods rather than the physical qualities of the products themselves. In fact, it states: “No distinctions should be made between organically and nonorganically produced products in terms of quality, appearance, or safety.” In other words, no claim should be made that the foods themselves are better–or even different!

Organic foods are certainly not more nutritious. The nutrient content of plants is determined primarily by heredity. Mineral content may be affected by the mineral content of the soil, but this has no significance in the overall diet. If essential nutrients are missing from the soil, the plant will not grow. If plants grow, that means the essential nutrients are present. Experiments conducted for many years have found no difference in the nutrient content of organically grown crops and those grown under standard agricultural conditions.


“Organic” proponents suggest that their foods are safer because they have lower levels of pesticide residues. However, the pesticide levels in our food supply are not high. To protect consumers, the FDA sets tolerance levels in foods and conducts frequent “market basket” studies wherein foods from regions throughout the United States are purchased and analyzed. The agency has found that about two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables have no detectable pesticides and only about 1% of domestic and 3% of imported foods had violative levels. Its annual Total Diet Study has found that dietary intakes of pesticides for all population groups are well within international and EPA standards.

Studies conducted since the early 1970s have found that the pesticide levels in foods designated organic were similar to those that were not. In 1997. Consumer Reports purchased about a thousand pounds of tomatoes, peaches, green bell peppers, and apples in five cities and tested them for more than 300 synthetic pesticides. Traces were detected in 77% of conventional foods and 25% of organically labeled foods, but only one sample of each exceeded the federal limit (Consumer Reports 63[1]:12-18, 1998).

Pesticides can locate on the surface of foods as well as beneath the surface. The amounts that washing can remove depends on their location, the amount and temperature of the rinse water, and whether detergent is used. Most people rinse their fruits and vegetables with plain water before eating them. Consumer Reports stated that it did not do so because the FDA tests unwashed products. The amount of pesticide removed by simple rinsing has not been scientifically studied but is probably small. Consumer Reports missed a golden opportunity to assess this.

Do pesticides found in conventional foods pose a health threat? Does the difference in pesticide content warrant buying “organic” foods? Consumer Reports equivocates: “For consumers in general, the unsettling truth is that no one really knows what a lifetime of consuming the tiny quantities in foods might do to a person. The effect, if any, is likely to be small for most individuals–but may be significant for the population at large.” But the editors also advise, “No one should avoid fruits and vegetables for fear of pesticides; the health benefits of these foods overwhelm any possible risk.”

NF Senior Associate Editor Manfred Kroger, Ph.D., Professor of Food Science at Pennsylvania State University, puts the matter more bluntly: “Scientific agriculture has provided Americans with the safest and most abundant food supply in the world. Agricultural chemicals are needed to maintain this supply. The risk from pesticide residue, if any, is minuscule, is not worth worrying about, and does not warrant paying higher prices.”


Taste is determined primarily by freshness. In the early 1990s, Israeli researchers made 460 assessments of 9 different fruits and vegetables and found no significant difference in quality between “organic” and conventionally grown samples (American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 7:129-136, 1992). The Consumer Reports study found no consistent differences in appearance, flavor, or texture.

Organically produced (“free-range”) poultry are said to be raised in an environment where they are free to roam. To use this term, handlers must sign an affidavit saying that the chickens are provided with access to the outdoors. A recent taste test conducted by Consumer Reports rated two brands of free-range chicken as average among nine brands tested. Its March 1998 issue stated that few chickens choose to roam and that one manager said that free-ranging probably detracts from taste because it decreases the quality of the bird’s food intake (Consumer Reports 63[3]:12-18, 1998).

Organic Proponents Object

Health-food-industry trade and consumer publications indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the proposed rules. The Organic Farmers Marketing Association ( states:

The definition of organic as written

in the proposed national organic

standards lacks the holistic

approach central to organic

practices. The proposed rules take a

reductionist approach to organic

food production that eliminates key

concepts such as the health of the

agro-ecosystem and biodiversity on

the farm.

Industry sources state that the USDA has received more than 4,000 comments on the proposed rules. One distributors association official wrote that if the rules are implemented, his members would seek to buy its agricultural products from foreign sources. Others have complained that the proposed fees are too high.

Most objections pertain to the provisions that permit irradiation, genetic engineering, and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. Other objections include permitted use of amino acids as growth promoters, antibiotics (when necessary to save the animal’s life), synthetic animal drugs, food additives, and animal feed from nonorganic sources.

Certification agencies with “higher standards” have objected that they are prohibited from stating this on their labels. Some poultry farmers have objected to provisions enabling intermingling of free-range poultry and other poultry.

The Bottom Line

Organic certification, no matter what the rules, will not protect consumers. Foods certified as “organic” will neither be safer nor more nutritious than “regular” foods. They will just cost more and may lessen consumer confidence in the safety of “ordinary” foods.

(Copies of the proposed rule can be purchased for $8 from the Federal Register by calling [202] 512-1800. Additional information can be accessed through the National Organic Program Web page at http://www.ams.usda. gov/nop. Comments on the proposed rule can be sent from the Web site or mailed to: Eileen S. Stommes, Deputy Administrator, USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room 4007-So., Ag Stop 0275, P.O. Box 96456. Washington, DC 20090. Comments will eventually be posted on the Web page.)

Stephen Barrett, MD, a retired psychiatrist who resides in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is a board member of the National Council Against Health Fraud and board chairman of Quackwatch, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Prometheus Books, Inc.

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