Pop quiz: According to the USDA regulations for organic food labeling, how much of a food must be made with organically-produced ingredients before the word "organic" can be used on the label?

A. 70%
B. 95%
C. 100%

The correct answer is A. A product containing up to 30% non-organic ingredients may still be labeled as being "made with organic (whatever the organic ingredients are)."

Perhaps you thought the question was worded a bit misleadingly. If you answered B, you may still consider yourself correct. The food itself may be labeled plainly as "organic" if it contains up to 5% non-organic ingredients.

There is something in the regulations that appears to be a curious contradiction. § 205.301(c), the paragraph describing requirements for foods labeled as "made with organic" ingredients, states: "Nonorganic ingredients may be produced without regard to paragraphs (4), (5), (6), and (7) of § 205.301(f)." However, § 205.301(f) says it applies to "all ingredients identified as 'organic,'" and § 205.301(f)(7) says the ingredients must not "Include organic and nonorganic forms of the same ingredient." Thus it appears that a food "made with organic" ingredients is both permitted and forbidden to mix organic and non-organic ingredients.

Reference: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/nop2000/Final%20Rule/regtext/reg-labeling.htm (5 Jun. 2001).

Back to basics: Eating just a little bit greener

If there was ever any doubt as to whether people are interested in their health, look at the number of gym memberships sold every year. The market for personal trainers, nutritionists and books on healthier living is accelerating at a mind-numbing pace. No wonder, then, that more and more people take more interest and care in what they eat on a day-to-day basis.

If you have been in a supermarket the past five years, you can’t have failed to notice the influx of organic produce on the shelves: Milk, eggs, vegetables, meats and even ready-meals labelled organic are readily available. Often, the price tag on organic products is slightly heavier than the non-organic equivalent. We can’t help but ask ourselves if it is worth it. For an increasing number of people the answer seems to be “yes”.

Why organic?

People eat organic food for many different reasons, including environmental concerns, health and taste. We spoke to Allia Cole, a 23-year old student at the University of Liverpool. “I started eating Organic food about 10 years ago, because I was worried about my health”, she said, “I felt I was sensitive to the pesticides and preservatives that are used to produce vegetables, and my aunt pointed out there was an alternative: Organic food”.

Allia has a point: By the time a non-organically produced lettuce makes it to a supermarket shelf, it has been sprayed with a variety of chemicals more than 20 times. A standard apple may have up to 30 different artificially introduced poisons on its skin – even after rinsing. “I am a student, and hence I am on a limited budget”, Allia admits, “You can’t put a price on health. I feel it is important enough to go out of my way to find it, and I am happy to pay the extra money food I can trust.”

Apart from claims that organic food tastes better, many aficionados will tell you that it is far better for you, too: Organically farmed fruit and vegetables can have up to twice the amount of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than high-intensity farmed produce.

Other arguments for eating organic food include animal protection: non-organically farmed animals are often kept on a steady diet of genetically modified food intermixed with antibiotics, growth hormones and medicines – regardless if the animals are ill or not. This has an effect on the milk, eggs and meat products many people eat every day.

It seems that Britons are discovering organic foods in a big way: In the past year, sales of organically certified foods have increased by 10 % – in the past ten years, sales have increased hundred-fold. Today, nearly three out of four households occasionally buy organic produce.

Where did organic foods come from all of a sudden?

When humans started domesticating animals about 14,000 years ago and invented agriculture roughly 4,000 years later, farming was organic simply because there were no growth hormones, pesticides or genetic manipulation. As early as 400 years ago, farmers started using natural pesticides such as the Pyrethrum Daisy, but more and more chemical pesticides were introduced over time.

From the mid-1930s onward, more and more farmers (especially those running smaller farms and selling their goods locally) decided that they would rather sacrifice some of their profits, and stick to more natural ways of food production. This movement was essentially the beginning of organic food as we know it today.

In the UK, organic foods have been promoted since the mid-1940s. The Soil Association was started when The Living Soil was published in 1943. This book, written by Lady Eve Balfour, and argues for a more sustainable approach to farming – a concept that is currently known as organic agriculture.


What does the label mean?

To adorn itself with the Organic label in the UK, the production of the foods has to follow certain regulations set out by the EU.

Meat and poultry products, for example, have to come from non-genetically modified (GM) animals that are fed on at least 70 % organically produced feed free of antibiotics, growth hormones and similar additives. The regulations further to promote high standards of animal welfare.

For natural produce such as potatoes, farmers may not use artificial fertilisers or pesticides to control the crops. Processed foods (such as pasta, cookies, and ready meals) labelled organic have to consist of certified organic produce.

In order to be Organic certified, farmers are subject to a legal framework: Organic businesses are licensed by law, and are inspected at least once a year. Most of the inspections and guidelines are set and upheld by an independently funded charity: the Soil Association.


Where can I buy organic foods in the UK?

80 % of organic foods are currently sold through supermarkets: Tesco stores generally have a separate section for organic foods, while Asda, Safeway and Woolworths have organic foods clearly marked side-by-side with their non-organic foods. The supermarket will often only have a limited selection of organic foods, but these are also likely to be the foods you need most often.

Local produce markets will often sell organic foods, either exclusively, or side-by-side with other produce: Ask your greengrocer which foods are organic.

There are also specialty stores that not only sell the produce, but where the staff will be able to answer your Organic food questions


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