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Restaurateur Nora Pouillon on organic food

Chef-owner Nora Pouillon  
December 20, 2000
2:30 p.m. EST

(CNN) -- For the first time, the U.S. government is telling farmers and food producers what makes a product organic. "These are the strictest, most comprehensive organic standards in the world," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said Wednesday in announcing the final rule, which becomes effective 60 days from publication. Growers and livestock producers have a maximum of 18 months to comply if they want to market their products as organic.

But for people who are looking to dine out on organic foods, searching for a restaurant can present a challenge. There is only one certified organic restaurant in the United States -- Restaurant Nora in Washington D.C..

Chef Nora Pouillon owns Restaurant Nora. The well-known establishment bears a four-star Mobil rating.

CNN Chat Moderator: Welcome to the CNN online, Nora Pouillon.

Nora Pouillon: Hello, Hi!

CNN Chat Moderator: When did certification as an organic restaurant become available?

  CNN In-Depth:
Organic foods

Nora Pouillon: Well it didn't become available -- I made it happen. Nobody had done it before and, since I was so heavily into organics and trying to find more suppliers, I went to an agency to get certified for an organic restaurant. Anybody who calls themselves "certified organic" has to go to this third-party certifier. It's a group of people who have put up some rules to determine what you have to do to call yourself "organic" and once a year they go to the suppliers, farmers, etc., and check to see if you really are following the rules. The one I went to is called Oregon Tilth and I asked them if they would certify my restaurant. They said they would try but first they had to create the rules, and that process took two years. And basically what it is -- I had to prove that at least 95 percent of all the food that comes in and is served to my customers is certified organic. And I had to have a piece of paper for each food from each supplier/farmer -- potatoes, coffee, everything -- to say that it is certified organic.

Question from gjones: I have a question -- Based on the new standard for organic foods, can Nora still claim to have organic food in her restaurant?

Nora Pouillon: Yes. Yes, because basically the new standards from the government are adapted and adopted from the existing rules from the agencies -- they just basically nationalized them. Before, California and the other states had different standards, but now they all have to adhere to the same standardized rules. And because the USDA accepts them, they become internationally acceptable, too, which is a big help for the organic industry.

Question from BushFam: Nora, is the soil that organic food is grown in tested for chemicals and pesticides before it is grown there?

Nora Pouillon: Yes, very heavily so. You have to prove that for three to six years -- I am not sure which -- that no pesticides have been used in the soil and no pesticide residues are in the soil. If there are any you can't claim to have grown organic food in that soil.

Question from mrspecific: What type of natural fertilizer is used in Austria?

Nora Pouillon: I can say that composting is one of the biggest things in organic farming. Composting comes from a natural decaying cycle. But I am not a farmer.

Patrons in Nora's unique dining room  

CNN Chat Moderator: Why was receiving this certification important to you?

Nora Pouillon: Well, I think what it does is give an enormous amount of confidence to my customers and makes my claim to being organic credible and gives them trust in what they eat in my restaurant -- because it has been certified and not just because it says so on the menu, but because I have legal proof. And it brings awareness to the food consumer in general that there is actually something out there that they can feel safe in eating. It doesn't have to be vegetarian, or tasteless, but it can be any food, delicious in a nice ambiance and setting. The only difference is that every ingredient is wholesome, healthy, balanced, and seasonal healthy food.

Question from maggiejo: What does the 5 percent that isn't organic constitute?

Nora Pouillon: Well, I don't think I even have 5 percent, but some spices I can't get organically, like curry or Moroccan spices, or it could be a certain type of vinegar or capers. Asian food falls a lot in that because sometimes I can't find rice, seawood, wonton wrappers or filo dough, certain specialty foods that are not available yet as organic. But every day there are more and more choices. In the fall, for instance, I could not find balsamic vinegar but now, I have certified balsamic vinegar from Italy!

Question from CathCNN: Do you think governmental standards for organic foods are necessary?

Nora Pouillon: Yes, very, very important. Not only important to the consumer to strengthen their confidence, that they can say "Okay, we do have organic food in this country and it is accepted," but also important to the organic industry itself. It is an historical day, as important as in the 1920s when the USDA gave its stamp to meat. Now when you see that stamp you know you are safe eating that meat and the same with organic -- the consumer will have confidence that they are eating basically safe, no pesticides, not genetically altered, safe food, and it will grow enormously. The industry grows at 20 percent a year and now it will grow even faster. And there will be more and more reason to use those farming practices that use organic growth. Conventional farming is very abusive to our environment -- our water, our air will all benefit from that growth spurt.

Question from Candyce-CNN: Nora, how many people will be served by these new standards and is the number of people who prefer organic foods growing?

Roasted duck legs with winter vegetables  

Nora Pouillon: My restaurant has been in business 22 years and it is doing better every year. Now we do twice the volume we did ten years ago and every year we do more business. And attract even a wider variety of customers. Before it was mainly environmental groups or political people who knew about different agricultural practices in the country, but now it is the couples and business people from around the Washington area and around the country, more and more widespread. This is not a vegetarian restaurant -- that is very misunderstood. Organic means that the food -- chicken, beef, hogs, lambs, ducks, vegetables, anything -- has been raised in that fashion. The only thing that organic doesn't apply to now is fish. But people thought it only applied to a small group of people, and that it was expensive. But now more and more people are finding it is reasonable, and it is easy and available everywhere, as in the "whole foods" markets. So it is all over the country -- supermarkets and consumers have choices of organic food or regular commercial food and are becoming more and more aware of the health implications of conventional foods. I always say "You save on the food but don't save on the doctor," because you are always sick.

CNN Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us?

Nora Pouillon: I am really excited. This is a day that I have been awaiting for 10 years -- since 1990 the government has been saying they would put out this standard. And it was a very political issue, but I am really excited that now, in the year 2000, the standards are finally published and put into action. And the American consumer can understand that with Mad Cow, listeria and food poisoning out there that there is finally a source of food that is safe to eat and the government gave it this credibility. I think it is an historical event.

CNN Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Nora Pouillon.

Nora Pouillon: Thank you, it was nice to talk to you! Goodbye.

Nora Pouillon joined the chat via telephone from Austria. provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Wednesday, December 20, 2000.


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