Organic Food FAQs

Nearly one-third of the U.S. population has recently purchased an organically grown food product, and sales are expected to more than double in the next four years-making organic one of the hottest growth trends in the food industry today. Organic foods set the standard for top quality freshness, texture, flavor and variety. These foods are produced without the standard array of potentially harmful, environmentally long-lasting agricultural chemicals commonly used on conventional food products since the 1950s. Yet organic farming isn't primitive, it's actually farming with our future at heart. Following are some frequently asked questions and answers.

How is organic processing better for the environment?

Organic farming, by definition, does not use environmentally harmful chemicals that may contaminate rain and groundwater. Organic farming also replenishes and maintains healthy, fertile topsoil with rich biological matter, which does not erode into waterways. Additionally, unusual varieties of crops and livestock are more likely to be raised organically, which helps to keep the gene pool for food products diversified.

What are the most popular organic products?

According to researchers at The Hartman Group, the most frequently purchased organic products are vegetables (70% of organic buyers have purchased in last three months), followed by fruit (68%) and cereal/grains (61%). New purchasers of organic products usually start by putting produce, dairy items and baby food in their cart. Consumers who buy organic products cite health/nutrition, taste and food safety as the top motivators for their purchase.

What is unique about organic produce?

The availability of organic produce tends to indicate that a particular fruit or vegetable is at its height of seasonality, according to Edmund Lamacchia, National Vice President of Procurement-Perishables for Whole Foods Market. "With few exceptions, organic growers cannot force ripen produce, so when consumers see those items at the store or market, they know the product is at its culinary peak. A good example is oranges. When organic oranges are available, they have been naturally ripened and will represent an immediate quality difference over conventional oranges that have been forced to ripen."

What are good products for consumers to begin trying as organic?

Consumers wishing to experiment with organic produce should start with basic commodity items, such as apples, pears, oranges, broccoli, green beans, cucumbers and tomatoes. Because these items are in ample supply from organic farmers, consumers will notice the least price differences versus conventional produce; whereas, exotic or specialty produce will command a higher premium if it is difficult to grow organically.

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What does "organic" mean?

Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and utilizes management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. "Organic" is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Organic Rule. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.

What are the standards that define "certified organic"?

When a grower or processor is "certified organic," a USDA accredited public or private organization has verified that the business meets or exceeds the standards set forth in the USDA Organic Rule. In October 2002, the first U.S. National Organic Standards will be introduced. Margaret Wittenberg, Vice President of Governmental and Public Affairs for Whole Foods Market, played a leading role in the development of the standards. According to Wittenberg, "These standards will help consumers make more informed choices, as they establish the first national guidelines for the production and handling of organically produced products, including labeling requirements for products that are 100 percent organic, organic and made with organic ingredients." Consumers can rest assured that the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sewage sludge and ionizing radiation (irradiation) are strictly prohibited throughout organic food production.

What types of foods are available as organic?

Most consumers think of fruits and vegetables when they think of organic products, but there are many other organic foods, including pastas, sauces, frozen juices, frozen meals, cereals, soups, chocolate, cookies, meat, poultry, dairy and even wine.

What are the organic standards for raising meat, poultry and dairy?

Organic livestock standards prohibit the use of synthetic growth hormones such as rBGH and the routine use of antibiotics. Additionally, all animals must be raised in natural living conditions appropriate for their species. The animals are fed only organic feed, and the processing for all meat, poultry and dairy products must meet organic standards as well.

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What is the difference between "organic" and "natural"?

"Natural" often is misrepresented in product labeling to imply "healthful," but "natural" only means that the product has undergone minimal processing. Unlike products that are certified organic, natural products have no certification or inspection system. Also, "natural" does not necessarily relate to growing methods or the use of preservatives.

Are organic foods healthier?

Organic foods are not necessarily more nutritious, rather organic food are spared the application of potentially harmful long-lasting insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. Many EPA-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases. Now, the EPA considers 60% of all herbicides, 90% of all fungicides, and 30% of all insecticides as potentially cancer-causing.

Do organic farmers ever use pesticides?

Organic farmers' primary strategy is "prevention." By building healthy soils, healthy plants are better able to resist disease and insects. When pest populations get out of balance, growers will try various options like insect predators, mating disruption, traps and barriers. If these fail, the certifier may grant permission to apply botanical or other non-persistent pesticides from the USDA National List of Approved Substances under restricted conditions. Botanicals are derived from plants and are broken down quickly by oxygen and sunlight.

Do organic foods taste better?

We think so, and hundreds of gourmet chefs across the country agree. It's common sense—well balanced soils grow strong, healthy plants that taste great.

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What is the difference between organic and transitional products?

Transitional products have been grown under conditions that meet organic growing standards but lack either the required length of time for the land to be free of chemical usage (36 months) or the process for proper certification has not yet been completed. The commitment to switching from conventional farming to organic methods is a difficult one. For example, production is often limited until the soil can rebuild the organic matter needed to compensate for the lack of synthetic fertilizers. While not allowed to label their products as organic, labeling as "transitional" allows consumers to support farmers who are moving toward organic certification.

Do organic foods generally cost more than conventional foods?

Although many organic products do cost more, the price of organic foods is increasingly competitive as supply and demand continue to rise. Larger retailers, like Whole Foods Market, are emerging with the capacity to buy and sell organic products at higher volumes, which leads to lower prices for organic food products. However, it is important to remember that prices for organic products reflect many of the same costs as conventional items in terms of growing, harvesting, transportation, and storage, but organic products must meet stricter regulations governing all of these steps. Therefore, the process is often more labor and management intensive. Organic farmers have an added cost of compliance with organic certification standards and government programs do not subsidize organic farming.

Are all of Whole Foods Market's products organic?

No. All foods and beverages carried in Whole Foods Market stores are natural and meet strict quality standards, meaning that they are free of artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners and preservatives; however, they are not all certified organic. Whole Foods Market offers its customers an unprecedented array of choices from conventional to certified organic, and supports farmers and food artisans from around the corner and around the world. The company does have a commitment to featuring organic choices whenever possible, as it believes the growing methods are more sustainable for people and the planet.

How large is the organic foods industry?

According to the Organic Trade Association, one to two percent of the U.S. food supply is grown using organic methods and is produced by approximately 7,800 certified organic farmers. Organic food sales have rapidly increased by more than 20 percent annually during the past decade, which has resulted in an estimated $9.3 billion industry in 2001.

Where can I find more information about organic foods?

A number of resources exist for those who want to obtain more information about organic food products, including:

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