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Organic Product Information

From the Organic Trade Association

What is organic?

Organic refers to the way agricultural products—food and fiber—are grown and processed. Organic food production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation to maintain the integrity of the food.

Is there an official definition of "organic"?

The following excerpt is from the definition of "organic" that the National Organic Standards Board adopted in April 1995: "Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."

What does "Certified Organic" mean?

"Certified Organic" means the item has been grown according to strict uniform standards that are verified by independent state or private organizations. Certification includes inspections of farm fields and processing facilities, detailed record keeping, and periodic testing of soil and water to ensure that growers and handlers are meeting the standards which have been set.

Can any type of agricultural product become certified organic?

Yes, any agricultural product that meets third-party or state certification requirements may be considered organic. Organic foods are becoming available in an impressive variety, including pasta, prepared sauces, frozen juices, frozen meals, milk, ice cream and frozen novelties, cereals, meat, poultry, breads, soups, chocolate, cookies, beer, wine, vodka and more. These foods, in order to be certified organic, have all been grown and processed according to organic standards and must maintain a high level of quality. Organic fiber products, too, have moved beyond T-shirts, and include bed and bath linens, tablecloths, napkins, cosmetic puffs, feminine hygiene products, and men’s, women’s and children’s clothing in a wide variety of styles.

Who regulates the certified organic claims?

The federal government set standards for the production, processing and certification of organic food in the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA). The National Organic Standards Board was then established to develop guidelines and procedures to regulate all organic crops. The U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during December 2000 unveiled detailed regulations to implement OFPA. These took effect on April 21, 2001, with an 18-month implementation period ending October 2002. At that time, any food labeled organic must meet these national organic standards. USDA’s National Organic Program oversees the program.

Are all organic products completely free of pesticide residues?

Certified organic products have been grown and handled according to strict standards without toxic and persistent chemical inputs. However, organic crops are inadvertently exposed to agricultural chemicals that are now pervasive in rain and ground water due to their overuse during the past fifty years in North America, and due to drift via wind and rain.

Do organic farmers ever use pesticides?

Prevention is the organic farmer’s primary strategy for disease, weed, and insect control. By building healthy soils, organic farmers find that healthy plants are better able to resist disease and insects. Organic producers often select species that are well adapted for the climate and therefore resist disease and pests. When pest populations get out of balance, growers will try various options like insect predators, mating disruption, traps, and barriers. If these fail, permission may be granted by the certifier to apply botanical or other nonpersistent pest controls under restricted conditions. Botanicals are derived from plants and are broken down quickly by oxygen and sunlight.

How will purchasing organic products help keep our water clean?

Conventional agricultural methods can cause water contamination. Beginning in May 1995, a network of environmental organizations, including the Environmental Working Group, began testing tap water for herbicides in cities across the United States’ Corn Belt, and in Louisiana and Maryland. The results revealed widespread contamination of tap water with many different pesticides at levels that present serious health risks. In some cities, herbicides in tap water exceed federal lifetime health standards for weeks or months at a time. The organic farmer’s elimination of polluting chemicals and nitrogen leaching, in combination with soil building, works to prevent contamination, and protects and conserves water resources.

Is organic food better for you?

There is no conclusive evidence at this time to suggest that organically produced foods are more nutritious. Rather, organic foods and fiber are spared the application of toxic and persistent insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. Many EPA-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases. In the long run, organic farming techniques provide a safer, more sustainable environment for everyone.

Why does organic food sometimes cost more?

Prices for organic foods reflect many of the same costs as conventional items in terms of growing, harvesting, transportation and storage. Organically produced foods must meet stricter regulations governing all of these steps, so the process is often more labor- and management-intensive, and farming tends to be on a smaller scale. There is also mounting evidence that if all the indirect costs of conventional food production—cleanup of polluted water, replacement of eroded soils, costs of health care for farmers and their workers—were factored into the price of food, organic foods would cost the same or, more likely, be cheaper.

Isn’t organic food just a fad?

No. U. S. sales of organic food totaled $5.4 billion in 1998, about $6.5 billion in 1999, and reached nearly $7.8 billion in 2000. The market has grown 20%–24% annually during the 1990s. The adoption of national standards for certification is expected to open up new markets for U. S. organic producers. Internationally, organic sales continue to grow as well.

From the Organic Consumer's Association

USDA Policy on Organic Personal Care Will Punish Real Organic Brands
While Protecting Those Who Mislabel

WASHINGTON, DC - The USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) recently reaffirmed that as of October 21, 2005, companies cannot label certified organic body care products with the USDA Organic Seal or represent that certified organic products comply with the National Organic Program. This policy change was initially proposed in April 2004 but was rescinded shortly thereafter after widespread public outcry. The new policy completely contradicts the previous 2002 USDA directive that invited body care companies to invest in certifying NOP qualified products, punishing legitimate organic body care companies while rewarding "organic" labeling fraud.

"Under pressure from big business, the Bush Administration's USDA is attempting to re-interpret the National Organic Program so as to kick out personal care companies that actually make certified organic lotions, balms and other products certified to National Organic Standards," says Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a nonprofit consumer watchdog organization. "Certified organic olive oil does not magically become non-organic if it is used as a massage oil instead of on a salad. There is no logic in the NOP denying use of the USDA seal on personal care products that meet the NOP standards especially when numerous personal care brands mislabel their products with 'Organic/Organics' that use conventional and synthetic ingredients and preservatives. OCA believes the USDA seal is the only way bona fide organic personal care products can be distinguished by organic consumers versus misbranded 'Organic/Organics' products."

The National Organic Program is for all products that comply with the program, that truly support sustainable organic agriculture and ecological processing without unnecessary synthetic ingredients. In May 2002 the NOP formalized this position to personal care manufacturers when they said in their scope policy statement, "Because these and other products, classes of products, and production systems contain agricultural products the producers and handlers of such products, classes of products, and production systems are eligible to seek certification under the NOP."

"The USDA is sadly confused about free speech in this country to try and censure companies from communicating they comply with the NOP. It's totally outrageous that companies which spent considerable resources to develop high quality organic personal care products at the USDA's invitation may have to remove the USDA organic seal by October 21, 2005 unless legal action is taken," says Cummins.

"OCA will join with any personal care company that already qualifies for the USDA organic seal in fighting more duplicity in the marketplace through this policy change. We urge companies that already qualify for the USDA organic seal to ignore the latest guidance because it is arbitrary and capricious and is beyond the authority of the NOP to enforce."Personal care products can enter the body through the skin. Increasingly consumers are demanding organic products they know are free of chemicals and synthetic ingredients that can be harmful to environment and human health.

From Diana's Planet

The Truth About Organic Cotton

I recently reviewed a natural products industry proposal for standards for “organic” cotton and was dismayed to see the heavy-handed corporate assault on what should be a cut and dried issue: the naturalness of organic cotton and wool.

The creation of natural and organic textiles is really a very basic concept, not unlike the process of growing, harvesting and preparing organic foods.  Take organic cotton for example.  The cotton should be grown and harvested and processed without harmful chemicals in accordance with the principles of organic agriculture and organic food preparation. Wool from sheep or other animals can be “harvested” from animals that are free-range, organically-raised and humanely sheared. Simple.

For millions of years humans experimented with the colors from plants that grew around them and painted their bodies and textiles with natural pigments.  Today, many craftspeople still practice natural dyeing techniques with beautiful and unique results.  There are hundreds of plants that can be grown easily, organically and sustainably to produce a wide range of lovely colorings.

So what´s the problem?  As peaceful and pretty  as organic cotton sounds, the ugly truth is that, with the infiltration of the giant corporate interests, the organic cotton industry is very dirty indeed.  Many companies flaunt the rhetoric: no pesticides, no herbicides and low-impact dyes.  Low-impact dyes?  Hold on here.  We need some additional information.  But before we expound upon dyes, let´s fill in the gaps between the harvesting of cotton and the dye processing.

Cotton (and other natural fibers) must be cleaned extremely well to remove plant pectins, waxes and oils so that the fiber can accept a colorant.  Textile processing involves lots and lots of water, often boiling water in a preliminary process known as “retting” and the final cleaning phase also commonly involves the use of detergents, caustic agents–chemical acids, even bio-engineered enzymes.  Is the cleaning done with organic castile soaps? No, sadly, it is a common practice for the washing phase to be done with conventional detergents, most times petrochemical-based detergents.    

Mercerized cotton.  You may recognize this term from the label on a spool of thread or on a denim fabric.  This is just one of many caustic chemical treatments used on modern cotton.  Other pre-dye processing treatments involve the use of harsh acids or enzymes.  Do these treatments sound like they are environmentally-friendly?  They don´t sound friendly because they´re really not.

Now we can move on to the “low-impact dyes.”  In the past few decades there has been significant scientific concern over the health and environmental impact of petrochemical dyes and there has been some research into the creation of less toxic chemical dyes and dyeing processing.  Unfortunately, nearly 100% of all commercial textiles, including the textiles identified as “low-impact dyed organic,” are dyed using synthetic petrochemical dyes. The phrase “low-impact dye” does not equal a botanically-based dye!  You might be surprised to learn that there are no government regulations for the processing of “organic” cotton and that there is no legal definition of the phrase “low-impact dye.”

“Organic” cotton textile producers latched on to the “low-impact” phrase and, currently, use it with abandon.  Many synthetic dyes have serious issues of ecotoxicity and human toxicity.  Chemical dyes have been proven to be a problem through dermal (wearing clothes all day) and oral absorption (children often suck on fabrics/blankets) and from dyes that are dumped into the drinking water and via consumption of marine life that is contaminated with chemical dyes from polluting of their habitat.  Many dyes have, at one end, serious issues with allergenicity (dermatitis, eczema) and, on the greater side, large problems with carcinogenicity and mutagen and teratogen potential.

Because it has been proven that chemicals in textiles can be ingested and absorbed through the skin, it is imperative that fibers that are labeled as “organic” should be grown, harvested and processed without harmful chemicals in accordance with the principles and current regulations of organic agriculture and organic food preparation.

Many companies claim that their dyes and dyeing processes have less impact on the environment compared to conventional textiles because, they claim,   that their dye processes dump less synthetic dye and other toxic processing chemicals into the environment and that the dyes themselves are less toxic.  However, because there are also no regulations that require textile manufacturers to disclose their processing methods or their chemical dye's specifications, consumers have no access to hard facts to evaluate chemical information for themselves. The corporations who are working behind the scenes to create the standards for “organic” textiles (and “organic” personal care products) want to keep consumers in the dark–the less information that consumers have the more money the corporations can make.

Right now the only aspect of “organic” cotton that is regulated as certified by the federal government is the growing and harvesting of cotton.  Whatever is done to the cotton after it is harvested and how it is labeled and marketed is completely open to the whims of the manufacturer of the finished product.  This lack of regulation has created a bonanza of riches for those manufacturers seeking to capitalize on and exploit the growing interest in healthier fabric and clothing options.  Sadly, people are being misled and are not getting the healthy products that they think they are.

There is a dedicated woman, Sally Fox, who has been developing very unique cotton strains through traditional hybridization techniques for many years.  Sally´s cotton, widely known as FoxFiber, is grown organically and grows naturally in incredibly beautiful shades of natural greens, beiges, browns and blues. Imagine, cotton grown in colors that requires no chemical processing or chemical dyes!  What a truly environmentally-friendly, healthy and sustainable crop and product!

The FoxFiber cotton can be grown organically, cleaned with mild chemical-free castile soaps and then woven into all manner of clothing and household products.  The bizarre problem with natural, color-grown cotton is that it really is organic.  Color-grown cotton makes chemically-treated cotton appear to be a bad environmental choice for health-oriented people.  Big companies that rely on brightly-colored textiles don´t want people to know the truth about FoxFiber or the truth about their chemically-treated fibers so they are joining together behind the scenes to create a set of watered-down, very weak standards for what they want to call “organic” cotton.

Beware!   Don´t be fooled by clever marketing gymnastics.  Tell companies you don´t like their “low-impact” dyes.  Tell them you want “NO-impact” dyes.  If more companies would invest in Sally´s color-grown cotton research, we might be able to have an even wider range of naturally-grown cotton colors.  What about Mother Nature´s coloring options?  There are millions of plants around the world that have the potential to be grown (organically, of course) and utilized for their no-impact colorant properties.  The giant textile manufacturers would rather use cheap petrochemical dyes than invest in botanical dye research applications and dye plant agricultural cultivation projects (that could support organic family farming operations) because they are more interested in profits than in protecting human health and supporting true environmental sustainability.  Tell the USDA that going half way isn´t good enough and that you believe that color-grown cotton or organic cotton (or hemp or linen or wool) dyed with organically-grown plant dyes are the only textiles that deserve to be called “organic.”  Chemical detergent washing aids, chemical dyes and other chemical or synthetic or bio-engineered textile processing aids are NOT acceptable for cotton or wool or hemp or linen products that are labeled as “organic.”

Earthhope Action Network/environment and conservation activism and wildlife protection