Entering a grocery store, buyers are often bombarded with seemingly all-important yet ill-defined terms; words like “organic”, “sustainable”, or – perhaps the most pernicious culprit – “natural.”
But what do these terms actually mean? And how can consumers know if the foods they’re buying - usually at a premium - were grown or raised in an organic environment?
The US Department of Agriculture, or USDA, is tasked with setting minimum organic standards that farms of all sizes must meet, and then ensuring compliance with those standards.
“Starting in 2002, federal regulations were governed to create a minimal standard for organic. So in a nutshell it means: for a minimum of three years before having the right to use that label, a farmer must shun almost all use of toxic agrochemicals. In terms of caring for their animals, it means there are no antibiotics and many other drugs, like synthetic parasiticides, poisons that might end up in the tissue of the animal, or the milk, or the meat, or eggs. And certainly no genetically engineered organisms, either in the feed for the animals or pharmaceuticals,” explains Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.
The Institute, which is headquartered in Cornucopia, WI, is both a farm policy and watchdog organization. They maintain organic scorecards for everything from eggs to pet foods. In theory, Cornucopia’s work should be done by the USDA, according to Kastel. But he says the agency doesn’t do a very good job of making sure the standards are met.
“The law is very clear. Congress empowered the USDA to do the kind of watchdog work that Cornucopia’s doing. They’re just failing miserably,” he says.
Part of the issue with implementing stricter enforcement seems to be a lack of political will. “During the Bush years, they just did everything they could to delay the implementation of the standards and not do much enforcement. It was even more insidious during the Obama Administration,” says Kastel. “They brought in people who knew the industry and invested a lot in public relations to tell us what a great enforcement job they were doing and then not following through.”
Despite a lapse in government enforcement, Kastel believes consumers are the best force in encouraging farmers to maintain USDA organic standards.
“There is a higher authority than the USDA and the courts and that is the consumer and their dollars, and that’s why we fall back on these scorecards,” he explains.