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Organics

The only way to be 100 percent sure that your food wasn't grown with the help of toxic sludge, genetically modified organisms, and/or pesticides is to do this: Buy certified organic foods or grow food yourself. Or buy from farmers you know employ practices you trust.

That's because of the definition of "organics." Put simply, organic crops and meats by law must be raised without sewage sludge, pesticides, ionizing radiation, genetically modified organisms and manmade fertilizers. Organic meat must come from animals that weren't given growth hormones or antibiotics; they also must not have eaten animal byproducts.

In 2000, after a 10-year development process, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rolled out its rules covering use of the word "organic" on foods. The USDA accredits independent certifiers, who then check the claims of producers.

Unfortunately, you can't just grab anything labeled "organic" and assume it's 100 percent organic. The federal system actually allows three levels:

  • "100% Organic" label.
    This means the food can only contain organic ingredients. No antibiotics, hormones, genetic engineering, radiation or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers can be used. These items can display the USDA organic logo and/or the specific certifying agent's logo.
  • "Organic" label.
    This means the food contains 95 percent organic ingredients, with the balance coming from ingredients on an approved National List of items that aren't commercially available in organic varieties. These products can also display the USDA organic logo and/or the certifier's logo.
  • "Made With Organic Ingredients" label.
    This means the food must be made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients, three of which must be listed on the package. These products may display the certifier's logo but not the USDA organic logo. (Read more at Eco-labels.org.)

All of which may make you wonder what's permissible for traditionally raised food. Toxic wastes from mining and other industries can be repackaged as "fertilizer" and used on non-organic food crops, as author Duff Wilson described in his book "Fateful Harvest." According to the Food and Drug Administration, 70 to 75 percent of all processed foods sold in U.S. grocery stores may contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants. Genetic modification - which involves splicing part of a foreign gene, such as from an animal, into a plant or another animal — never is mentioned on food labels, because the government doesn't require it.

Of course, health concerns are the main reason people increasingly reach for organic foods, making organics the fastest-growing sector of the food industry. You can reduce your exposure to chemicals by buying organic. Some studies have found organic foods contain more nutrients.

Trouble is, the organics industry is changing; some companies that raise conventional crops now also raise gigantic fields of organic crops to meet demand. Writer Michael Pollan called the changing industry the "Organic-Industrial Complex." The drift toward industrialization and away from small farms has prompted Pollan and others to declare buying organic far less important than buying locally raised foods.

For more info:

Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.

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