What Is an "Organic" Label Really Worth?

July 24, 2013

Supermarkets in North America and Europe are overflowing with organic-labeled fruit, vegetables, eggs and meats. More than 80 countries have organic standards, and products carry one or more of 200 seals, logos and certification claims. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic products, but the realities can mean you get little more than a psychological boost for your buck, says Jon Entine, a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University.

Ecolabels represent an ecological, ethical, ingredient or sustainability claim. The United States, Canada, the European Union and Japan have comprehensive organic standards overseen by governments. Many nations have a "100 percent organic" label. But the devil is in the detail, and the details can be devilish indeed.

  • In the United States, the Department of Agriculture label has numerous levels -- headed by the 100 percent designation USDA Organic seal.
  • The U.S. government also allows the word "organic" on products that contain 95 percent organic ingredients. But they could contain monosodium glutamate, a flavor-enhancing natural ingredient, or carrageenan, a seaweed substance that thickens food.
  • Both ingredients are an anathema to organic-favoring foodies, who believe that they pose health dangers even though government scientists have cleared them as perfectly harmless.
  • A third category designates products with a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients. They can be labeled "made with organic ingredients." But such a label carries no guarantees about what else might be in the product.

How reliable are organic labels? Conventional and genetically modified seeds are known to occasionally mix with organic supplies. But in-depth field-testing to ensure compliance on this is a rarity. Typically, certification requires only that operations must have a system plan and compliance records.

Some organic labels are more rigorous than others. To earn the European Union's new organic label, farmers and processors must follow a strict set of standards, including the requirement that 95 percent of the product's agricultural ingredients have been organically produced and certified as such. Some member countries have their own organic labels in addition to the EU-wide regime.

Of course, with success comes temptation; the organic industry is no different from any other. For the most part, fraud has been sporadic. Over the years, there have no doubt been instances of panicked farmers facing an insect infestation spraying an unapproved herbicide; or a hard-pressed supplier mixing in conventional low-cost eggs with pricier organic ones. But fraud has rather flown under the radar. And as sales have boomed and the stakes have risen, the scale of deception has broadened.

Source: Jon Entine, "Organic Food -- What Is an 'Organic' Label Really Worth?" Ethical Corporation, July 11, 2013.

 

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