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Is organic superior to regular food?

Consumers with a taste for the organic can chew on a smorgasbord of issues in the coming years as large companies vie for a healthy slice of a very lucrative market. While big business pressures government to change standards for what can be certified organic, proponents of healthy eating identify "locally grown" as the most palatable option.

Shoppers no longer have to visit specialized stores to find organics. Feeding on jitters about pesticides, genetically altered produce and irradiated meats, supermarket chains across the country are offering their own lines of organic foods. The label goes on vegetables, dairy products -- even frozen pizzas and instant dinners -- significantly driving up their cost.

Skeptics call it a scam. There's no evidence, they say, that organically produced foods are any healthier, while advocates say the mainstreaming of the trend introduces concerns that go far beyond the totals on sales slips.

Definition of organic
While putting "natural" on a label may be no more than an advertising ploy in the food business, use of the word "organic" label is strictly defined by U.S. Department of Agriculture standards set in 2002 as part of its National Organic Program. Produce must be grown using environmentally sustainable production methods, without the application of pesticides or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge. To earn the organic designation, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones -- nor can they be confined in pens. No claims are made about country of origin or health value.

The logistics of small-scale farming are one reason organic products traditionally have been more expensive, says Guillermo Payet, founder and president of Local Harvest, a California-based advocacy group.

Pricey produce
For the uninitiated, comparison shopping in any market would confirm that. Pricing is inconsistent -- it varies by season, market location and store policies -- but you can usually count on paying more for organic food in a chain supermarket than in a health food store.

A pound bag of conventional carrots, a mere 69 cents in one chain's produce section, was $1.49 in its organic section a few aisles away. At the health-food store, they sold for 99 cents.

Conventional chicken was $1.59 a pound at the chain market; eggs $1.29 a dozen. The health-food store was selling free-range chickens at $2.29 per pound, eggs at $3.69 a dozen. House-brand milk at the chain was $2.09 per half gallon. The same store's organic milk was $3.19. Competing brands started at $3.79 -- 20 cents more than the same brands cost at the nearby health-food outlet.

As a rule, organic food costs anywhere from 15 percent to 100 percent more than conventional food, says Ronnie Cummins, president of the Organic Consumers Association. One reason is higher small-farm production costs: Organic farmers cannot produce and distribute as efficiently as competitors. But, Cummins says, other long-term factors are not so apparent.

With organics, he says, "there are no hidden costs passed on to the public, as there are with conventional food." Established firms get publicly subsidized to lobby for supportive legislation to the scientific development and use of hormones, as well as fertilizer and pesticides, he explains. Cummins says conventional prices are kept low through the use of industrial agriculture practices that severely damage the environment. While the cost at the cash register may be less, eventually "you pay in taxes and the cost of health care."

Next: "Organic is, in my opinion, one of the biggest scams ..."
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