The USDA has announced approval of a new uniform standard for labeling foods with the word Organic. The symbols tell you that the food is grown without artificial pesticides, genetic engineering, growth hormones or irradiation. Fine points in labelling let you know if the food is made from 100 percent organic ingredients, 95 percent or 70 percent.

None of this makes foods more nutritious or safer.

Pesticide residues have never been shown harmful to humans: found on plants, yet diet highest in plants is associated with fewest cancers. Your body cannot distinguish between "natural" pesticides (made from ground-up chrysanthemums) and their chemical copies.

No one has shown irradiation (a method of killing bacteria) harmful; and whatever your position on genetic engineering, the resulting foods are not less nutritious; some have nutrients added. Organically raised meats are no lower in saturated fats than conventionally grown meats.

I support organic farmers for their efforts to find solve environmental problems, and often shop in organic markets: they have tasty produce and carry whole grains that are hard to find elsewhere. But the food is often more expensive, and when budget is an issue, it's healthier to eat a lot of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables than a small amount of organic fruits and vegetables.

The label standard helps organic growers who want to export their products, and it may help you by weeding out people who make claims that are simply untrue (up until now, anyone could say "organic" on a label and you had no idea what it meant.)

But -- "Organic" does not mean healthful. There's organic white flour, organic sugar, organic partially hydrogenated fats. When I shop in an organic market, I still avoid the same sections as in a regular supermarket: stay out of the bakery, the meat department, the cookies/crackers/chips aisle, the ice cream section. Organic junk food is still junk food.

Also realize that the USDA program makes no provisions for federally-funded inspection; instead the USDA will rely on "certifying agencies" which they will accredit. In an administration with low priority on government regulation, that probably means something like "the honor system". It's up to you to decide which manufacturers and suppliers you want to trust, and what's important for your health, nutrition and ethics. The US government won't help you much.

Checked 9/1/05

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