What “Organic” Means

QuestionWhat does organic mean?

Marion Nestle: Organic in the United States has a very precise meaning. It’s what the Department of Agriculture defines it as, and it defines it very precisely for plants as no genetic engineering, no irradiation, no fertilization with sewage sludge, no chemical fertilizers, or any of those kinds of things. It’s a very precise definition of what can and cannot go into a food that is called “organic.”

With animals, the definition is also quite precise. The animals have to be raised on organic feed, they have to have access to the outdoors, they can’t be treated with antibiotics or hormones and so forth. The rules are very long. And the places that produce those organic animals or plants are inspected to make sure that they are following the rules. So, that’s that system and to the extent that it works, it works pretty well. Most people think it works pretty well and there’s not an enormous amount of cheating going on because of the inspection system and because the organic producers know what the others are doing and so they turn each other in if there’s a problem. There’s not a lot of cheating going on.

But with that said, a lot of people feel that the organic rules are not strong enough, that they really don’t deal in particular with the ability of animals to be outdoors just because they have access to the outdoors doesn’t mean they are actually outdoors. That’s a big loophole. And also, there’s no requirement for sustainability. So, you can have industrial organic agriculture that is just as devastating to land, sea, and air and climate as industrial anything else. And that’s, I think, a problem.

I think the Department of Agriculture is looking at ways to strengthening the organic rules and ways to make sure that they are kept honest.

With such a wide range of foods that are being called "organic" today, a nutritionist reminds us what the standards for the term truly are.

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