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Is organic superior to regular food?
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Representatives for watchdog organizations, such as the Organic Consumers Association, say the giants of agribusiness are putting pressure on Congress to relax U.S. standards used to certify organic products.

"We need to make sure that these large corporations don't just profiteer at the expense of pioneers who have kept the label meaningful," says Mark A. Kastel, who heads The Cornucopia Institute, a small farmers' advocacy group based in Wisconsin. Kastel says that while some synthetics have always been allowed in organic food, now there's a move to change the wording from "synthetic substances" to "synthetic ingredients." That, he says, "opens up a whole new category of things.

"An example would be food-contact substances such as chemicals used in boiler treatments. Right now things like that are approved for use in conventional food plants, but they wouldn't be allowed in organic production without scrutiny."

Cummins says some large dairies supplying products to chains "bring young heifers onto their organic farm from conventional farms." The milk-producing heifers are raised in confinement and then imported to the same company's "organic" farm as adults. Again, this violates the USDA National Organic Program's standards.

"They're watering down the standards, which amounts to defrauding the consumer," says Kastel. "The problem is that private brands are anonymous. You don't know where your food is coming from. Organics, for most of their history, have had an identity, a connection to the land and those who produce our food."

The case for buying local
That's where advocates say buying local becomes not just a healthier alternative but also a political act. Cummins says in 2005 conventional supermarkets accounted for half of all organic food sales -- and that food is likely to have been grown outside the U.S.

"If you're outsourcing to China," he says, "where the farmer makes 20 cents an hour, what you get may not be organic at all. That's why we don't want the Wal-Mart business model to predominate in organics, because what you end up getting if you follow that model is less quality."

Even if organic tomatoes from China really meet organic standards here, Payet says, "it's not a sustainable practice. Think of all the energy used and oil burned to ship those tomatoes here."

If shoppers buy as much as possible from local producers, Payet says, "labels and verification become less important, because you know the producer. You can see they're not throwing chemicals into local creeks."

Cummins adds that supermarkets peddling organic convenience foods such as instant frozen dinners are stretching the concept.

"Any nutritionist would say you shouldn't eat 'organic' processed convenience foods any more than other kinds," he says.

As for escalating prices, Cummins says there are tactics consumers can use to keep food bills down.

"You can," he says, "buy in clubs or co-ops, or directly from farmers, avoiding processed organic foods. Your best tactic is to learn to cook from scratch using organic ingredients. It's half the price -- and it's better for you."'s corrections policy -- Posted: Feb. 6, 2006
Personal finance story archive
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