If you’re trying to eat healthy, you probably look for the “organic” label.
According to conventional wisdom, organic foods are free from artificial additives, and they’re subjected to less processing than non-organic alternatives. They’re effectively more “natural,” and therefore easier on farmland. Organic meats and dairy products result in a higher quality of life for livestock.
But that might not actually be the case.
As it turns out, “organic” is big business; in the United States alone, the market brings in more than $40 billion annually, according to the Washington Post. There’s a very strong incentive to sell organic products—and the rules surrounding the “organic” label are remarkably lax.
Here’s how the United States Department of Agriculture defines organic:
“Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”
But companies have quickly identified loopholes that allow them to maximize production while still maintaining their organic labels. For instance, many organic producers use pesticides—in fact, because organic pesticides are typically less effective than synthetics, farmers may use a much higher concentration of pesticides on their organic crops.
For processed foods, only 95 percent of the item must come from organic sources. The remaining 5 percent can be made up of non-organic substances. That all assumes that the labeling laws are followed—in some cases, enforcement seems extremely lax.
The issues are particularly noticeable in the dairy industry.
The USDA enforces organic labeling, requiring farms to allow cows to “graze daily throughout the growing season,” feeding on grass instead of readymade feeds.
However, a Washington Post investigation found that less than 10 percent of a herd at the Aurora High Plains complex grazed at any given time.
“The requirements of the USDA National Organic Program allow for an extremely wide range of grazing practices that comply with the rule,” a spokesperson for Aurora said in response, dismissing the claim as “isolated.”
Journalists also discovered that USDA inspectors visited the complex after grazing season—when the complex wasn’t required to let cows graze. This was a violation of USDA rules, and, as the Washington Post argues, an unfair practice that hurts the small farms that actually follow the rules.
“About half of the organic milk sold in the U.S. is coming from very large factory farms that have no intention of living up to organic principles,” said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit group that represents smaller organic farms.
“Thousands of small organic farmers across the United States depend on the USDA organic system working.”
Unfortunately, right now, it’s not working for small farmers or for consumers.”
This isn’t to say that consumers shouldn’t buy organic foods. The report does, however, show that the USDA system is inadequate for assessing the true quality of a dairy.
So, what’s the right way to buy organic? Consumers should do their own research and buy from smaller farms that don’t have as much of an incentive to game the system. While organic processes are important for protecting the environment, the USDA label isn’t especially useful for identifying those processes.
For more information, be sure to check out the full Washington Post report on organic dairies. It’s an interesting read—even if it is fairly frustrating to consumers.