In accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the United States Department of Agriculture will soon announce the criteria foods must meet in order for the agency to certify them as organic. Foods meeting these standards will bear a USDA seal to show their compliance.

Despite popular connotations of the word “organic,” the USDA criteria and seal, to be activated by year’s end, only describe means of production and have no relevance to the safety, nutritional or environmental benefits, or deficiencies of organic foods. In a television interview last March, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman explained that organic labeling “is not a science-based system ? the organic rules are not safety rules.” In fact, the latest draft of the organic requirements excludes certain food production practices, such as irradiation, which actually make foods safer.

Irradiated food was considered organic when the USDA’s criteria were first proposed, but an outcry from the organic industry persuaded the USDA to exclude irradiated foods from its definition. No scientific reason called for the exclusion of irradiation from organic preparation. Rather, the decision was based on the unscientific ideology of people who prefer not to eat foods produced or processed in ways they do not approve. The entire system of USDA certification is simply a business mechanism to help attract consumers to organic foods. As a matter of fact, Glickman described the certification as “a marketing tool” the organic food industry wants.

Although the USDA certification requirements do not directly address the safety or nutritional value of organic food, consumers will view the government seal as a sign of superiority. In fact, a poll conducted by International Communications Research found that nearly 70 percent of the public would find “USDA Certified Organic” to mean safer, better and healthier than non-organic foods.

The USDA recognizes that certification may mislead the public and has said that it will make clear its position that organic does not imply “better” or “safer.” However, the USDA has not revealed how it will deliver this message. Simply posting a statement on the USDA Web site, as some suspect they may do, will not go far enough to ensure that the public understands the narrow scope of the USDA definition of organic food. According to the National Food Processors Association, such a disclaimer needs to be included on the seal itself, where consumers will see it.

John Carlisle of the National Center for Public Policy Research noted that “consumers pay significant premiums, sometimes as much as 200 percent, for these [organic] products based on the misperception that will be heightened by this USDA proposed label.”

Understandably, consumers will pay more for foods that are safer and more nutritious. They will pay to protect their health. If the organic industry has its way and the USDA seal misleads the public to believe that organic describes anything more than production methods, consumers will empty their wallets with the false expectation of a “better” product.

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