The Educated Consumer

Hearing a lauded food critic and and foodie say, on NPR, that she uses organic eggs because the “chickens are treated better” first made me furious. Then it made me terribly sad. She is promoting what big corporations want people to think food terminology means, when in fact it does no such thing.

So, instead of bellyaching about it, I am going to undertake some education here over he next several weeks. Yes, there are many books about these topics, but not everyone reads entire books about food. So, I’ll do what I can to cover the basics of food terminology and what it does and does not mean regarding healthy eating, treatment of animals, etc.

Today:

What ORGANIC really means. The basics.

The word “organic” is legislated by the US government.

There is NO food testing for organic standards. This means that the only thing “organic” means is that there is no provable written record of pesticides or chemicals being used. It DOES NOT mean the food was tested in any way, shape, or form for compliance.

Organic chicken & beef are not necessarily treated any differently than non-organic animals. The term “organic” does not cover humane treatment of animals to any different degree than legislation for non-organic animals does. Chickens can still be kept in overcrowded barns, and if you’re getting them from a commercial outlet, then they almost certainly are. They can and usually are: de-beaked, kept in crowded cages, and force fed.  Cows can and are still be kept in pens so tight they cannot adequately turn around or roam at all. They can still be branded and force fed.

When referring to animals, the term “organic” refers ONLY to the feed and medical treatment animals receive. Animals are given feeds free of non-organic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer. There ARE acceptable chemicals and substances for use on grains labeled organic, but these are usually inert and fairly natural. Animals are treated with a variety of substances to prevent disease and bug infestations. Again, these substances are usually fairly natural.  If an animal does not respond to these treatments, it must be removed from the rest of the animals and treated with antibiotics or other USDA accepted medications, or be put down. If it is treated with medications, this animal cannot be sold as organic.

Included in medical treatment is the application of hormones. Again, there is NO testing for this at this time. Synthetic hormones are not allowed under organic regulations.

“Organic” feed is NOT necessarily the animal’s natural food, nor any more nutritious or digestible than non-organic food. It is simply free of non-approved pesticides and herbicides. Organic beef and chicken is unlikely to have been roaming the grassy plains until it was slaughtered if you’re getting it from a commercial outlet.

Organic produce & grains are not treated with unapproved fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides. Natural fertilizers (such as chicken litter) and some natural pesticides are used. Again, there is NO testing for this. If a farm is audited, as long as there is no written record (receipts, bills of lading, delivery notices, etc.) and no restricted chemicals being used on the fields while the inspector is there, the farm will pass.

Organic, in my humble opinion, is better than non-organic. However, as a consumer it is important that you know what you are and are not paying for. When you purchase “organic,” you are paying for items that are theoretically  basically chemical-free. You are NOT paying for humane treatment of animals or food testing. The USDA does not recognize “organic” food as any better than non-organic, and legislated the use of the term exclusively for marketing purposes–NOT health reasons, which is why there’s so little covered in the legislation.

Next time: “Free Range. ” The basics.

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One response to “The Educated Consumer

  • Emily

    Great blog–very informative and fabulous pictures! If you are still working on your Consumer Education series, I’d like to suggest looking at the Animal Welfare Approved program (www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org). There’s a section on the website that discusses food labels, and clarifies a few common misconceptions about production claims. Some of the farms you work with might be interested in their free accreditation program too. Thanks for taking this on.

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