Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What’s in a label? That which we call USDA // By any other name would taste as sweet.

Recent news article from Tennessean states “U.S. tightens organic food label standards.” In short, the article confronts the reality that the National Organic Program (NOP) isn’t keeping up to appropriately organic standards and that food marketing businesses are cutting corners. Hoping to enforce the rules set down by previous government officials, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released further details on previously existing rules as to what can be labeled as an organic meat or dairy product. I was always skeptical that any food in a market could be labeled as “organic” and feared that there was no difference between a labeled item and not. “Reliability and transparency” are the defining terms for hardcore organic shoppers.

While the title of this recent blog post isn’t in iambic pentameter, it is apparent that I have a serious qualm with Shakespeare’s “rose by any other name” argument. In his play, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses Juliet (the altered quote from the title) to express that a name is an artificial social stigma. This quote indicates the feud between two families and the antipathy of two young lovers who believe that names are meaningless conventions. Clearly Shakespeare did not shop in the “organic” section of the food market. The family feud of today takes place in our local markets -- between organic and organically-labeled food products.

So what
is organic? I found the following picture to be an accurate depiction of what I thought it meant:

This marketing strategy by Imagine is what we see in the food markets today. In class we watched a film, Food, Inc., which showed the revolting conditions through which most of our food in the U.S. is grown today. A toe-curling thought: there are labels placed on food items to incite feelings of house-warming and healthful goodness. The cunning use of the word “farmers” and “country” evokes trust within shoppers, though the quality is questionable at best. Fortunately, there is a difference between organically-labeled food products and those that lay barren.

The follows image explains what I cannot in less than a few thousand words:

So there is some method to the USDA’s madness, but the key is in one’s ability to interpret labels. The following advice is mostly sound:

Despite the conviction of the father within this video, the labels for fruit will not identify whether they have been genetically-modified or not. GMOs make up another can of worms in the muddled food industry labeling process. Needless to say, without doing research, buying anything off of a shelf that claims that it is organic and wholesome is not wise for the newly health-conscious consumer. If Shakespeare were alive today he would balk at the ill-used naming conventions of today. However, Yoda from Star Wars has taken a less ignorant stance on the side of caution, “All is not what it seems.”

On a last note, please read this website if you want to get on the road to more healthy organic foods.


  1. Very well written post. I love the Shakespeare example and succinct way you address the issue and use multiple sources to address labeling of organic products. There really needs to be a better way to distinguish between the organic products in the supermarket today. It gives me a headache!

  2. I thought I'd preface this with a note to say that I am not attempting to pick a fight. I don't think I know enough about farming to make a call here and I am posing these questions in the hope that someone who is better informed can actually address them. When I say I am sceptical, I mean I am unconvinced, not cynical, and I am prepared to be convinced if I'm the one whose got it backwards.

    See I'm sceptical of the whole 'organic'-is-better argument. So far I find the term mostly meaningless. The quote from Imagine that you linked to says nothing of substance. In what way do these farmers 'create a balance with nature'? What is this balance? Do other farmers not do this? Systematically?
    'These farmers focus on soil improvement and rely on biological systems.' Wouldn't soil improvement benefit all growers? Do we know for certain that 'conventional' farmers do not care about soil improvement? And if they don't do this, how come they haven't gone out of business? Also, what 'biological systems'? That's a huge term. Everything that is living can come under 'biological systems', including conventional farmers.
    As for them producing high quality food with minimal impact on the environment, has it been proved that organic food is nutritionally better than conventional food? From what I have read, there is no difference in nutritional content.
    Also, the minimal impact on the environment claim is dubious. If organic farmers do not use pesticides (or, as I understand is more often the case, use 'organic' pesticides - same chemicals, different form) then their crop yields would be smaller than factory farms and the like, yes? That means they need more land to produce less food. Given that half the world is going hungry at the moment, can we really afford to support something like this?
    The idea of organic food is appealing, certainly. But I am not convinced that it is actually anything other than a marketing ploy.
    Things like this: and this do not help, really because they raise more questions. As I don't live in the US, the apparently awful farming methods used in the States aren't actually reason enough for me to buy organic all the way over here in Australia. Yet. What do you think?

  3. So, I'm only going to address one small part of Nadia's comment- the part about half the world starving.

    My understanding now is that the world currently DOES produce produce enough food to feed everybody in the world (see this which cites this

    The issue isn't necessarily with producing food, but getting it to the people who need it.

    The UN World Food Programme says it better - "Among the key causes of hunger are natural disasters, conflict, poverty, poor agricultural infrastructure and over-exploitation of the environment. Recently, financial and economic crises have pushed more people into hunger," (

    Long story short, we (the world) have conquered the issue of producing more food on less land (which comes with its own chemical-health-environment consequences). So I'm not sure that producing a fraction of the food organically will affect world hunger that much. I'm of course assuming that not all food production corporations (farmers just seems misleading) would shift to organic.

    And history time: Despite the adverse health and environmental consequences of pesticides and fertilizers, their use began because of increasing population and subsequent food crises. Horse manure just wasn't cutting it anymore. The explosion in the development and use of fertilizer is what prevented Malthus' predictions from coming true. While I'm not arguing that we should consume mass produced food unquestioningly, I do think it is important to understand the how we got to where we are today. (And, conscious consumption of organic foods is different than purchasing for status or because its the popular thing right now)

    (The Alchemy of Air, by Thomas Hagar writes about the history & development of chemical fertilizer).

  4. I love organic food ... but Is the data in the label Real??

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