Sometimes, we treat food products like hygiene products and don’t pay attention to what ingredients they really contain. We rely on those short, sweet, and easy-to-read labels to give us the go-ahead, but they are often unclear. Consequently, inaccurate labels may lead us to buy products that are not actually, for example, organic.
Over the last decade, both consumers and companies have especially pushed for clearer organic labels on food products. Despite people’s desire for proper labels, labeling something as organic does not always mean that your item will be more nutritious or healthy.
Confusion About Organic Labels
In Organic & Natural Health Association’s survey study, researchers found that many consumers are confused about the terms “organic” and “natural.” In fact, one in three American adults does not believe there is any difference at all between the two labels. Almost as many people think that “organic” is a term that the U.S. government regulates.
Is the term “organic” regulated?
The FDA states that the “Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the National Organic Program (NOP). The NOP regulations include a definition of ‘organic’ and provide for certification that agricultural ingredients have been produced under conditions that would meet the definition.”
What does the USDA Organic label mean?
In your local grocer, you may or may not see little USDA Organic stickers on certain packages. This label implies that farmers and manufacturers have produced food or agricultural products through a set of approved methods.
- Produce can be certified organic if it has grown in soil that has been free of prohibited substances for at least three years prior to harvest, and (if necessary) pre-approved synthetic substances according to a strict criterion.
- Meat can be certified organic so long as farmers provide proper living conditions that accommodate their natural behavior, 100% organic feed and forage, and do not administer antibiotics or hormones.
(This USDA blog post goes into more detail.)
Labels Within a Label
There are currently four levels of organic labeling. If you want to buy truly organic products, these are the labels that you should look out for:
- 100% Organic: These products include ingredients that are all certified organic. You’re most likely to find 100% organic products in raw and unprocessed items from farms or rolled oats and grain flours.
- Organic: These products contain at least 95% certified organic products. The remaining 5% can be nonorganic agricultural products so long as there is no organic alternative or the remaining ingredients are non-agricultural and included in the national list of permitted substances.
- Made with Organic: Products with this label must contain at least 70% certified organic ingredients. Like the #2, in this case, the remaining 30% is permitted to be made up of nonorganic agricultural ingredients.
- Specific Ingredient Listing: These products contain less than 70% certified organic ingredients and the ones that the product does contain may be included on the packaging.
That said, if you think that you have it bad, Chinese citizens continue to face incredible challenges when it comes to the issues surrounding “organics.”
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Organic Chinese Foods
Not unlike the U.S., anyone in China who wants to legally sell organic products must go through a process to get a Chinese organic certification. That process goes something like this: Apply → Document Check → Onsite Inspection → Inspection Report → Evaluation → Issuing Certificates → Maintaining Certificates.
Even with a system in place, however, there is still cause to approach Chinese organics with caution. Because China is such a huge exporter of organic products, it helps to shop wisely and take extra care when purchasing their exported organic goods. Many of the issues with these foods are largely rooted in poor food safety regulations and ever-rising levels of pollution.
Reasons to be Cautious of Chinese Organics
1. No Governing Body
It seems that the Chinese government has yet to establish a clear authority that can enforce organic standards. Many agricultural producers who may not have their organic certification have taken advantage of this industry’s lack of enforcement.
In one case, a consumer wishing to purchase organic products realized that the vendor’s product was nonorganic. Upon reporting the misleading vendor, the consumer went through four different provincial departments only to find out that none of them had the authority to do anything about the illegal selling of “organic” food.
2. Fraudulent Product Labels
According to a USDA report, the Chinese organic certification fee can cost up to $3000. Because the certificate expires annually, organic food providers must renew their certifications each year, which requires follow-up inspections. However, the frequency of audits isn’t enough and so, it remains a challenge to maintain compliance among vendors.
Instead, producers tend to try and save money by not renewing their yearly certifications and continuing to use expired organic labels. Unfortunately, in some cases, others will blatantly mislabel their produce as organic.
3. Severe Pollution
China’s industrialization has taken a toll on its rural landscapes. Because of such rapid development, bodies of water like the Yellow River (which citizens deem unusable) are negatively impacting the soil that farmers use to grow their crops. As a result, the untreated industrial wastewater taints the agricultural products that China provides both domestically and internationally.
An especially relevant chemical is perchlorate, which is a toxin that attacks the thyroid gland. Researchers suggest that human exposure to excessive amounts of perchlorates will decrease thyroid hormone production. In other studies, researchers have found widespread perchlorates in sewage sludge, rice, bottled water, and milk, which may cause developmental and behavioral problems for infants and children.
Since organic food systems and regulations affect so many countries, the best thing you can do is your homework so that you can shop wisely and help educate others!
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