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Government debates 'organic'
What is organic and what isn't? The United States government is trying to answer that question, with a little help from its governed.
Friday is the last day for the public to tell the U.S. Department of Agriculture what it thinks of a set of proposed rules determining just what foods qualify for the organic standard. Agriculture officials are expected to announce the final standards by the end of the year.
The decision likely will come just in time. Sales in the organic-foods industry continue to soar as more consumers look for what they perceive to be healthier, chemical-free foods.
The organic food industry has been surging at a rate of 20 percent annually over the past decade, figures show. Produce sold by about 12,000 organic farmers nationwide is expected to fetch $6 billion this year, according to the Organic Trade Association. Founded in 1985, the association represents organic-industry growers, shippers, distributors and retailers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
The boom has, in part, been fueled by consumers' belief that organic produce is healthier than other foods and that it is wholly free of disease-causing pesticides and herbicides.
People like Madeline Raines, who started eating organically when she met and married Nicolas Donck, an organic farmer, help spread that belief.
"I lost 20 pounds, eating the same things I'd always eaten, but (this time) eating organic," Raines said. "My chronic fatigue went away; my life completely changed. I didn't just get Nicolas -- I got healthy."
While there are no human studies proving organically grown food makes people healthier, there is concern about what pesticides might do to the body -- especially the body of a child. Until recently, the government's evaluations of pesticides have been based on what those chemicals do to the body of a grown man.
But in the past decade, said Katherine DiMatteo of the organic association, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken a broader look at pesticides, focusing on "its impact on children, on women and the elderly."
The EPA also is reevaluating what some consider the riskiest group of pesticides -- organophosphates. Since its review began in 1996, the agency has removed from the market five of the 43 pesticides in that group.
Donck also worries about genetically modified foods.
"I feel it needs to be tested for at least 50 years (to) see what it does to the body before it should be allowed on the shelf," he said.
Foods that are genetically modified or irradiated are not considered "organic" under federal guidelines proposed in March.
Proposals rewritten after criticism
This is not the first time the Agriculture Department has enlisted public opinion about organic foods. The agency revised its first proposed national guidelines -- first released in 1997 -- following a flood of negative comments from the public.
Environmentalists, farmers, consumers, and celebrities such as Willie Nelson wrote comments, most of them opposing the proposed regulations. Even the Vermont Legislature damned the drafted changes.
Critics objected to labeling as organic foods grown from genetically modified seeds, treated by disease-killing irradiation and fertilized by sewage sludge recycled by municipal waste plants.
Agriculture officials spent the last two years reviewing the letters and have rewritten guidelines, hoping they've finally come up with standards for what is -- and is not -- organic.
This time around, biotechnology, sewage sludge and irradiation will not be considered organic.
Critics of the organic industry say the rules could lead consumers into thinking organic products are safer or more nutritious than conventional food. There is no evidence that is true, says Christine Bruhnne, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California-Davis.
"I hope they will understand what organic means and make this an informed choice," she says.
While many are joining the organic food trend, health experts say what's most important is a healthful diet. Studies show eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day can reduce the risk for some types of cancer by as much as 20 percent.
Living the 'organic' food lifestyle
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