Going organic

    In the early 1990s, my cousin and her husband, who live near Green Bay, Wis., announced that they were going to be farming a little differently. Their farm was “going organic.” This news really piqued our family’s interest. What is organic? Are organic foods better for you? Are they expensive?

    Advocates will tell you that organic farming is more than the avoidance of pesticides. It is a system of farming design and management practices that utilizes ecologically based practices (such as cultural and biological pest management), helps protect the environment (by reducing chemical pollution), promotes energy conservation (by saving energy required to produce synthetic pesticides and fertilizers) and contributes to improved and stable soil conditions.


    Because of the increasing popularity of organic farming (but corresponding lack of regulation), Congress in 1990 passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). It required the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products. The standards were designed to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as “organic” met consistent and uniform standards. As a result, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) came into being.

    NOP emphasizes the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic agricultural products (fruits, vegetables, grains, etc.) are grown and processed without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.

    Understanding labels

    “Certified organic” means that agricultural products have been grown and processed according to the USDA’s national organic standards and certified by USDA-accredited state and private certification organizations. Certifying agents review applications from farmers and processors for eligibility, and qualified inspectors conduct annual onsite inspections of organic operations. Inspectors talk with operators and observe their production and processing practices to determine if they are in compliance with organic standards that, for example, virtually prohibit synthetic pesticide use in crop production and require outdoor access for animals in livestock production.

    Additionally, the USDA developed labeling rules (implemented in October 2002) to help consumers determine the exact organic content of the foods they buy. If the USDA Organic Seal appears on a label, the seal indicates that a product is at least 95 percent organic. A small, sticker version of the seal may appear on individual pieces of vegetables or fruit, or the seal may be displayed above the organic produce section in stores. The seal, and the word “organic,” may also appear on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese and other single-ingredient foods.

    The USDA cautions consumers not to confuse the terms “natural” and “organic.” The words are not interchangeable. Though “natural” typically means a product is free of artificial additives, it is not regulated in foods (except meat and poultry). Only food labeled “organic” has been certified as meeting USDA organic standards. Other claims—including “natural,” “free-range” or “hormone-free”—may be truthful, and can appear on food labels, but do not mean the food is “organic.”

    If foods have more than one ingredient (cereal, for example), the following labeling rules apply:

    • Food containing 100 percent organic ingredients may bear the USDA Organic Seal and state “100% Organic” on the front label.
    • If 95 percent or more of the food is organic in origin, it may also bear the USDA seal and the word “organic” on the front label.
    • Food made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients may use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the front of the label.
    • Products with fewer than 70 percent organic ingredients may list organic ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package.
    • The name and address of the government-approved certifier should appear on all packaged products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

    A booming business

    U.S. sales of organic products were $15.7 billion in 2005—nearly 2.5 percent of total food sales—and were expected to reach $17.8 billion this year, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. Organic dairy is a fast-growing segment of the industry. Organic dairy products accounted for $2.14 billion in sales in 2006 and the demand for these products continues to increase at a rate of 25 percent nationally—and a whopping 51 percent in Arizona.

    Responding to that demand, local dairy Shamrock Farms in June rolled out a new line of organic milk from its herd of 200 organic Holstein cows raised on 100 percent organic feed. The organic herd grazes on 120 acres of lush, green pasture in Stanfield, a tiny community just west of Casa Grande. Before the cows are milked in the Shamrock Farms Organic Milking Barn they receive “Roxie’s Spa Treatment”—a bath—named for the company’s mascot and “spokescow,” Roxie.

    “Shamrock Farms is proud to be the first and only Arizona dairy to offer organic milk,” says Mike Krueger, senior vice president and general manager of Shamrock Farms. Organic milk originally was offered in whole and 2 percent options; in September the company added fat-free milk, sour cream and light sour cream to its organic product line. And in October, the company began packaging all of its organic milk products in a 96-ounce “Smart Fit” container designed to improve pourability for children and the elderly.

    “Dairy foods are the most nutritious and effective way to naturally get the calcium families need,” says Linda Vaughan, R.D., professor for the Department of Nutrition at Arizona State University, who has partnered with Shamrock Farms to provide organic education for consumers at shamrockfarmsorganic.com. “Shamrock Farms now provides Arizonans with local organic milk, which gives them confidence in dairy products that are rbST-free, fresh and delicious.” Shamrock Farms’ traditional milk products also are rBST free. The abbreviation “bST” stands for “bovine somatotropin,” also known as bovine growth hormone. The term “rbST” refers to bST that is produced using fermentation technology and then injected into dairy cows. The hormone increases efficiency of milk production but has come under fire from consumer groups claiming that milk from cows injected with rBST contains high levels of Insulin Growth Factor-1, considered a tumor promoter, according to the website organicconsumers.org.

    Is “organic” safer?

    The health effects of exposure to minute amounts of pesticides found in foods are largely unknown, especially for children. The USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food, stating only that organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown, handled and processed.

    Health experts, including Andrew Weil, M.D., clinical professor of medicine and director of the Program of Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson, disagree. Weil has advocated the consumption of organic foods for many years. In his book The Healthy Kitchen: Recipes for a Better Body, Life, and Spirit, co-authored with Rosie Daly, he states, “As a physician, I worry that the poisons used in conventional fruits and vegetables undermine long-term health, especially when people suffer cumulative exposure to many different agents. I believe that research will eventually link this exposure to increased risk of chronic disease, including cancer and degenerative diseases of the nervous system.”

    Weil says it’s important to know which crops are most likely to carry significant residues of pesticides. In his many books (and on his website, drweil.com) he recommends checking lists of the most- and least-contaminated crops provided by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a not-for-profit environmental research organization dedicated to improving public health and protecting the environment by reducing pollution in air, water and food. “There is growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can adversely affect people, especially during vulnerable periods of fetal development and childhood, when exposures can have long lasting effects,” states EWG on its website (ewg.org). “Because the toxic effects of pesticides are worrisome, not well understood or, in some cases, completely unstudied, shoppers are wise to minimize exposure to pesticides whenever possible.”

    EWG’s produce ranking, known as the “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” was developed by analysts based on the results of nearly 43,000 tests for pesticides on 43 different fruits and vegetables collected by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) between 2000 and 2004. How people typically wash and prepare their produce was taken into consideration for nearly all of the data. For example, apples were washed before testing and bananas were peeled. The fruits and vegetables that ranked highest in pesticide residues were peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, grapes (imported), pears, spinach and potatoes. The lowest-ranking fruits and vegetables were onions, avocados, sweet corn (frozen), pineapples, mangos, sweet peas (frozen), asparagus, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli and eggplant. (For a complete list visit foodnews.org.)

    An EWG simulation of thousands of consumers eating high- and low-pesticide diets shows that people can lower their pesticide exposure by almost 90 percent by avoiding the top 12 most-contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least-contaminated ones instead. Washing and rinsing fresh produce may reduce levels of some pesticides, according to EWG, but it does not eliminate them. Peeling also reduces exposure, but valuable nutrients often go down the garbage disposal with the peel. The best option is to eat a varied diet, wash all produce and choose organic when possible to reduce exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.

    Water alone will not remove pesticide residues from fruits and vegetables, according to Patti Milligan, M.S., R.D., CNS, director of nutrition and public relations at Sprouts Farmers Market in Phoenix. She recommends using a drop or two of dish detergent in a small tub of water to wash produce, then rinsing thoroughly with water. Washing produce in this manner has a twofold advantage: in addition to removing pesticide residues, it also helps remove harmful bacteria.

    “It is also helpful to peel when you can and remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables,” says Milligan. Special fruit or vegetable washes may be convenient but are no more effective than regular dish detergent, she says.

    Where to buy organic foods

    The increasing availability of organic products is good news for Arizona families. “I only buy organic milk and meats for my family, says Susan Rendina of Phoenix. “I do it because we have two daughters. We hope to keep them as hormone-free as we can for as long as we can. Kids are getting mature so fast these days.” Rendina says that she has been delighted with the availability, convenience and affordability of O Organics, a line of 150 certified-organic products introduced in January 2006 at Safeway stores nationwide (safeway.com). Beverages, breads and other bakery items, breakfast cereals, frozen foods, produce, dairy and eggs, canned foods, snacks, cookies and candy are some of the many products offered in O Organics line. In the spring of this year, Safeway added 38 new products—including formula, cereal, baby food and snacks—under the O Organics for Baby and O Organics for Toddler brand names.

    Arizona-based Sprouts Farmers Market (sprouts.com) specializes in farm-fresh produce purchased from local growers. It carries a large selection of organic foods and offers extensive “health and resource” information as well as recipes on its website.

    Organic produce, meat, dairy, eggs and other products are also widely available at the nine Trader Joe’s locations in the Phoenix metropolitan area and Tucson (traderjoes.com). Organic foods and beverages can be found in every corner, from the produce section to the freezers, the grocery aisle to the dairy case, the bread racks to the snack shelves. All of Trader Joe’s organic products are certified by a third-party agency.

    Whole Foods Market, founded in 1980 as one small store in Austin, Tex., is the world’s leading retailer of natural and organic foods, with 199 stores in North America and the United Kingdom (wholefoodsmarket.com). The company is committed to buying from local producers whose fruits and vegetables meet their high quality standards, particularly those who farm organically and are themselves dedicated to environmentally friendly, sustainable agriculture.

    Locally based Bashas’ supermarkets offers a full line of natural and organic foods called “Full Circle” and the company recently opened Ike’s Farmers Market, a natural and organic foods market, in Tucson.

    Some Arizona residents have discovered alternate ways to get organic foods into their homes. Kelly de Simone of Phoenix has been a member of Ahwatukee Produce (ahwatukeeproduce.com), a local organic cooperative, for seven years.

    “We love the variety of produce that we pick up twice a month,” she says. “We used to buy the same fruits and vegetables, every week—like most people do. Because of the co-op, my kids now eat a wide variety of produce, like collards, kale, beets, summer squash, pears, apricots and berries…the selection is amazing.” And the greatest advantage of belonging to a co-op? “The produce is so fresh,” she says. “I mean really, really fresh. After all, we get it right off the truck.”

    In addition to supermarket chains, specialty stores and organic cooperatives, organic produce also be found at local farmers’ markets or can be delivered to your home by companies like Boxed Greens. Established in 1996, Boxed Greens (boxedgreens.com) touts an ability to provide an affordable way to enjoy organic fruits and vegetables delivered right to your front door (you may also pick up). The company is committed to supporting small farming operations and offers a diverse selection of seasonal fruits and vegetables throughout the year by taking advantage of many local farms and the long growing season in Arizona. Its produce selection changes weekly because it is determined by seasonal crops.

    Phoenix-based Organically Grown For You (og4you.com) purchases from certified organic and organically grown farms in California. Owner Mary Maio is passionate about bringing quality, safe and healthy foods to Valley residents at reasonable prices. She says organic foods shouldn’t be a luxury—especially for people with chronic health problems or chemical sensitivities. Several restaurants and about 400 Valley families buy their food from her company, which also offers pick-up or delivery.

    The cost of buying organic

    Organic foods are more expensive than conventional ones but as demand and supply increase, the price difference is narrowing. Here are some recent shopping comparisons that show price differences on the same products—one organic, the other conventional:

    Trader Joes
    Strawberries (16 ounces):
    Organic – $2.69 • Conventional – $2.29
    Spring mix lettuces (five ounces):
    Organic – $1.99 • Conventional – $1.89

    Shamrock Farms fat free milk (half gallon):
    Organic – $3.29 (sale price two for $5) • Conventional – $2.99 (sale price $2.79)
    Mini peeled carrots (16 ounces):
    Organic – $1.79 • Conventional – $1.69

    Organic non-perishables generally have a similar price difference. Dairy products, meat, poultry and eggs tend to have the greatest price differential, but even these are becoming more affordable. (For example, skinless, boneless, organic chicken breasts recently were selling at Sprouts Farmers Market for $3.99/pound.)

    Milligan is pleased to see the trend toward more affordable organic foods. She suggests that consumers “watch for specials and to buy seasonally” to get the most value for their dollar.

    My cousin has been farming organically for more than 15 years. “I like not having herbicides on the farm,” she says. “I do not have to worry about [my husband] getting exposed [while farming]. It makes me feel good to know that our grandchildren can play anywhere and pick an apple and eat it without being exposed to chemicals.”