Wilton, Conn. New government food-labeling regulations will help the growing numbers of Americans who are buying organic products, and showing interest in healthful eating and earth-friendly practices.
According to the Organic Trade Assn., sales of organic foods and beverages have been increasing by at least 20 percent per year since 1990 with some years reporting up to 24 percent increases.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put in place a set of national standards that food labeled "organic" must meet, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries.
When you buy food labeled "organic," you can be sure that it was produced using the highest organic production and handling standards in the world, the USDA says.
In the past, organic-food producers established regional voluntary certification programs to define what made food "organic." Organic producers long worked together to be precise about the definition of organic, as opposed to the more nebulous term, "natural."
The new federal regulations provide precise definitions, and those who do not follow the federal organic regulations will be fined up to $10,000 for each violation.
The U.S.D.A. says: "Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, egg, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.
"Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.
"Before a product can be labeled 'organic,' a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too."
Strict labeling guidelines have been established so that the consumer will know the exact organic content of the food.
If you see the "USDA Organic" seal, the item is at least 95 percent organic.
If the product is entirely organic, it can make the claim, "100 percent organic."
If the label says "made with organic ingredients," the product must contain at least 70 percent and up to 95 percent organic ingredients, excluding water and salt. The USDA Organic seal cannot be used on these products.
For products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients, labels will be allowed to list the organic items in the ingredient panel only, but not display the word "organic" on the front.
"What's important about the standards is that organic will have a consistent and specific meaning in which consumers will have confidence," Elaine Lipson of Boulder, Colo., said. Lipson is the author of "The Organic Foods Sourcebook."
"It's exciting because more and more companies will chose organic production and there will be more availability and more choices."
Home cooks increasingly will be able to find organic ingredients to make favorite family recipes, she said.
She calls this "a coming of age for organics," and gives consumers credit for having supported it and demanded the new standards.
Sylvia Tawse farms organically with her husband in Longmont, Colo., and also owns the Boulder, Colo.-based public relations agency, Fresh Ideas Group, which represents organic products.
There are still gaps in the availability of organic foods at the supermarket level, Tawse said.
"For example, there is no label approved for organic fish, although this is under debate. Many will be hard pressed to find much in the meat department, as livestock feed is still very expensive and that presents a barrier for most producers."