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When organic ain't

(article, Culinate staff)

On his Politics of the Plate blog recently, Barry Estabrook pointed out that not all the ingredients in certified-organic food have to be, you know, organic:

bq. According to USDA rules, if 95 percent of a product is made up of organic ingredients, it can be called organic. If it’s 70 percent organic, the label can read “made with organic ingredients.”

These rules aren't new. But, as Estabrook noted, think of it this way:

bq. The casings for those tasty USDA Organic sausages can come from conventionally raised animals that have been fed antibiotics. The hops in your favorite organic beer can be sprayed with all manner of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Strawberries can be labeled as organic even if they had their start in a conventional nursery.

How much does this matter to you and your health? It's hard to say. You may want to beware, however, any organic food originating in China. 

And as organic farming becomes large-scale and global, the New York Times recently pointed out, it's becoming an environmental strain, especially on water tables:

bq. To carry the Agriculture Department’s organic label on their produce, farms in the United States and abroad must comply with a long list of standards that prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones and pesticides, for example. But the checklist makes few specific demands for what would broadly be called environmental sustainability, even though the 1990 law that created the standards was intended to promote ecological balance and biodiversity as well as soil and water health. 

So what does "organic" really mean anymore?