These days, organic food is a $65 billion industry, and practically mainstream. But if one of your customers asked, could you explain what “organic” means?
The truth is that most people don’t know what makes food organic, and they often confuse that label with similar food labels. One poll found that a majority of Americans buy organic food, but only 20% could define it correctly.
Luckily, this gives those in the food and beverage industry the ability to address most of their customer’s questions and concerns just by educating themselves on the basics.
What does “organic” actually mean?
In order for food to be labeled “organic” in the U.S., it has to be grown and processed according to strict USDA guidelines:
Natural fertilizer: Organic farms aren’t allowed to add nutrients to the soil with synthetic fertilizer or the sanitized waste from water treatment plants. Instead, they can use crop rotation, compost, livestock manure, or “green manure” (plant waste left on the field after harvest).
Natural pest control: Synthetic pesticides also aren’t allowed; soil has to be free of these chemicals for 3 years before a farm can be certified organic. Weed and pest control is handled with mulching, crop rotation, insect traps, and predatory species, instead. A few synthetic pesticides are allowed as a last resort, if an infestation can’t be controlled with other methods.
No GMOs: Plants and animals whose DNA has been modified in a lab can’t be certified organic.
No growth hormones or antibiotics: Livestock can be vaccinated but not treated with hormones or antibiotics. If an animal gets sick and other treatments fail, antibiotics can be administered but that animal is no eligible to be certified organic.
Livestock diet: Animals must have a certified-organic diet, and ruminants (cattle, sheep, and goats) must be pasture fed during grazing season.
Animal welfare: Animals must have “healthy living conditions” and outdoor access year-round.
No irradiation: Organic food may not be irradiated for sanitation or improved shelf-life.
The USDA also controls the language that can be used on food labels, based on the percentage of ingredients that are organically sourced. The two most common labels you’ll see are “100% Organic,” which is self-explanatory, and “Organic,” which means at least 95% of the ingredients are organic, and non-organic ingredients come from a USDA-approved list.
Are All-Natural, Local, or Sustainable the same as Organic?
Nope! With so many buzzwords out there for alternative farming practices, it’s natural to get their meanings confused. Some of the terms are regulated, some aren’t, and a lot of them don’t mean what you might assume.
Natural or All-Natural is a label that is regulated by the FDA. It simply means that they haven’t added flavor, color, or synthetic ingredients, and that it’s “minimally processed.” If you think that sounds vague, you’re right. Add to that, the regulatory definitions of synthetic and natural are probably not what you think they are. Savvy consumers should be skeptical of this label and its meaning.
Locally-sourced is a term that has no regulated definition in the U.S., so there is no standard on the distance the food has travelled. It also has no bearing on how the food was produced. “Organic” does not mean “local,” and “local” does not imply “organic,” though certainly some producers offer locally-sourced, organic food.
Sustainable can cover a range of farming practices, as long as it rests on a foundation of environmental stewardship and social responsibility. Not all organic food is sustainably produced. As demand has gone up, industrial farming has entered the organic market. These industrial producers are not sustainable.
What are the benefits of organic food?
Proponents of organic food often say it’s safer and more nutritious than food that is produced with conventional farming. The truth is, we don’t have strong evidence for those claims.
Scientific studies on the subject are a mixed bag, but results indicate that organic food has a similar amount of nutrients to its conventional counterpart, and we haven’t been studying the subject long enough to say definitively if organic food’s ban on various chemicals is better for the health of its consumers.
The reduction of these chemicals definitely has a positive impact on environmental health, however. Conventional farms produce run-off with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. These are powerful chemicals, and can cause “dead zones” in freshwater and marine ecosystems. The natural alternatives don’t cause nearly as much damage.
Then there’s the public health benefit of restricting antibiotic use. Since conventional farms only use them to reduce gut inflammation in animals (which allows more efficient digestion and encourages more growth), bacteria get exposed to antibiotics and don’t die. They develop resistance to those drugs, share it with other bacteria, and that makes it harder to treat human disease.
All of this means that while organic food may or may not be healthier for the individuals that consume it, the methods used in organic farming are healthier for our society as a whole.
Whether or not you choose to carry organic food at your establishment, the most important way you can ensure the health and safety of your customers is to effectively train your staff in safe food handling. Safety and regulatory compliance is crucial to your business, and we make it easy, fun, and affordable.