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Agent explains, compares levels of organic food
Barrow’s conclusion: ‘Locally grown,’ ‘humane certified’ are the best
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
By VICKY MORRISON - Bulletin Accent Writer
When it comes to natural food, how far are you willing to take it?
That is the question Melanie Barrow, Henry County-Martinsville Virginia Cooperative Extension Horticulture Agent, put to the latest meeting of Master Gardeners.
Barrow explained what organic food is and how it is classified.
“Organic” is a label applied by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to indicate that the food has been “produced through approved methods,” Barrow said.
The factors USDA considers are “soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control and use of additives” when it comes to calling a food organic, Barrow said.
The approval process involves tracing all aspects of production and determining if any adulteration has occurred.
The USDA, said Barrow, classifies four levels of organic: 100 percent organic, organic and two lower levels that are not allowed to use the seal but may include some notation of organic ingredients on the product’s label.
• “100 percent organic” is used for food that is entirely organically created.
• “Organic” means 95 percent or more of the ingredients are organic.
Presently, there are no certified organic growers in the area, Barrow said. If a non-certified farmer were to have a sign or some form of labeling indicating organic qualities, they could be fined with a federal felony.
The USDA requires that organic produce is grown on soil without any prohibited substances coming into contact with the soil growing the produce for at least three years before harvesting.
Organic meat must come from animals who were raised in living conditions that “accommodated natural behaviors,” were fed completely organic food and not given antibiotics or hormones, said Barrow.
The USDA has other classifications for animals, as well.
• “Free range” animals have shelter, unlimited food, fresh water and outdoor access. This, said Barrow, can be applied to a farm even if the outdoor area is quite small.
• “Cage-free,” which Barrow said is what any chicken in the grocery store is, is the label for animals allowed to freely roam a building, room or enclosed area with unlimited food and water.
• “Grass fed” is when animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass. Barrow clarified that “grass fed” animals still may be eating some inorganic food.
Barrow said the terms “grass fed” and “cage free” may be misleading to people who want to buy meat from animals treated well. “Grass fed” and “cage free” farming conditions still may be restrictive or unpleasant for the animals, she said.
• “Humane certified” is a label which classifies the animals’ lifestyle as completely free with no hampering.
Regulations for processed organic foods require no artificial elements in the food, including preservative, coloring or flavoring. It is permitted, however, to contain non-agricultural ingredients, said Barrow. Examples of these are enzymes in yogurt or pectin in fruit jams.
• “Locally grown,” which Barrow said “is the one I push,” is in support of local farmers and “puts a face behind the foods we consume and keeps us connected to the seasons, as well as the unique flavor and diversity of local crops.” Barrow said “at least you know who the farmer is and where food is coming from.”
As far as pesticides are concerned, organic products are limited in what they can use for prevention and treatment of pests. They are, though, considered to be exposed to harsh chemicals due to the “overuse during the past 50 years ... and due to drift via wind and rain.”
This means that no matter what, the food in stores today or even grown at home is affected on some level by the toxic effects of pesticides.
Barrow cited a Stanford University study that showed the health benefits of organic food were insignificant. It also said that organic foods are only 30 percent less likely to contain pesticides.
A Chatham College of Pittsburg study that Barrow also included stated that organic carrots had higher amounts of chemicals compared to non-organic carrots.
“It is very very hard to be organic,” said Barrow. In her opinion, it is not worth it to buy organic unless the food is for someone with an immune deficiency issue or a small child. Otherwise, organic food is a pricey alternative with insignificant gain. Barrow concluded by saying that the choice of how dedicated to be was the consumer’s.