Friday, November 13, 2009

More on food - a bit about organic standards.

I have been struggling to write this blog for three days now.  If you are interested in learning more about how to shop for organics, read on.  It is not as straightforward as one might think.  Otherwise, I'll see you later.

What comprises a "good" diet?  Good question, difficult answer.  Our bodies didn't come off an assembly line, and we metabolize our food differently from person to person.  There is no single best diet, but there are some dietary guidelines that everyone would do well to follow.  Most people could improve their health by cutting down drastically on carbohydrates.  If you get 10% of your calories from carbs, that allows you a baked potato now and then, lots of good green leafy vegetables, and if you go to 15%, maybe an ice cream cone every once in awhile.  You can keep track at  FitDay  to get those percentages with very little work.

But first and foremost, for everyone, whether omnivore, vegetarian or vegan, whether a low carber or a pasta and bread lover, eat organic and local.  It is possible to do both, no matter where you live.  Farmers markets are so underrated, although I think that is changing. Between 1994 and today, the number of markets has exploded, growing by 250%!  That is good news, because you can get to know your suppliers and producers, and I believe that is the #1 most important thing when you shop. 

It you buy "organic" and it is from a large corporation a few thousand miles away, I'm not sure you have accomplished much.  In the first place, that carbon footprint is pretty big given the fuel it takes to get it to you.  In the second place, you can't check up on the company that grew it.  You have to wait for the investigative reporting to hit the internet, and then you can try to figure out who the good guys and the bad guys are.  At a farmers market, you get to know the person who is growing it and selling it.  She knows that if she doesn't take care of her customers, there is someone else with a booth who will get some of her business.  He knows that if he treats his laborers shoddily, he won't get his crops harvested on time.  There is no one person to talk to in a corporation.  If the company is big enough, it will have a customer service department with canned speeches, and it can afford to hire lobbyists - those in charge know it is easier (and cheaper) to get the rules changed than to change the way they do business

 Let's talk eggs.  There is no legal definition for "cage free," although that should be obvious.  Free range does have a legal definition, and it is troubling.  It sounds like agribusiness got involved in this one.  The law states that the chickens "must have access" to the outdoors, but can be raised in houses and need never set foot outside - they just need to be given the opportunity.  Most of these housed chickens have a tiny little door with access to a tiny little yard, and it is doubtful if more than a handful spend more than a few minutes in the yard.  Yet you will pay more for those "free range" eggs.  You are not getting what you think you are getting.

If you are buying from Eggland's Best,  you can do a little research.  Here is what I found out -- they are not free range.  They are cage free, and that means that they are not in cages inside a building, but they ARE inside buildings and do not ever leave them until they make their final trip to Lipton's.  I'm not knocking Eggland's Best, but I'm not endorsing them either.  I use this as an example to make a point.  It is good to know the source of  your food, and since I don't know Mr. or Ms. Eggland, I'll get my eggs from Barb, who is a shareholder in our milk association.  Her chickens run free and I know it - she sends me pictures.  I get one with a blue shell every now and then, too. That is always fun and entertaining.  The yolks are a lovely dark orange, and those egg whites stand at attention!  They are FRESH - almost as fresh as Barb.  Getting to know your producer can be fun and entertaining, too.

If you are buying from the local farmer, you can go to the farm and inspect the premises.  I let people do that here, and most farmers will oblige you if you ask.  Isn't that great, to be able to see the source?  When you buy a gallon of milk in the grocery store, you have no idea where the milk came from, or how old it was before it was processed.  But you do know that it was pasteurized - so you can rest assured that you are getting dead milk.  Yum!!!

As for the organic issue, ask your producer how the crops are being raised.  "Do you spray?  What products do you use?  Are your beef steers fed grain?  Do you raise any GMO (genetically modified organism) crops?  Do you raise hybrids or open pollinated?  Were your plant starts raised in organic potting soil?"  My personal belief is that most farmers will be absolutely honest with you.

So it isn't necessary to have that USDA organic stamp.  However, I do get concerned with farmers who say they are "same as organic."  When I ask them if they have downloaded and read all of the many MANY pages of the organic standards, they always - I mean every time - say no.  So my question then is, if you do not know what the organic standards are, how can you say that you are meeting them (which is what is implied when you say you are "same as")?  That is when it is good to get informed yourself, and then you know which questions to ask.  Few farmers are aware of all of the rules and regulations.  "Organic" is more than not using bug spray, hormones or chemical fertilizers.  I had to put a few rows of my garden into transition because my potting soil was not organic.  Regular potting soil's wetting agent is a petroleum product, I didn't know it, and there you have it.  It's a big faux pas that many gardeners make, and I'm pretty sure that they have no idea that they are putting their gardens out of reach of organic standards (at least for three years) by using plants raised in standard potting soil.  Says something for those of us who like to put the seeds right in the ground.  No foul there!

There is a thing called self-certification, and I think it is a very good thing.  USDA certification is going to cost even a small farmer a minimum of $600.  How can you recover that if you have a one acre garden?  So most states allow a farmer to do self-inspection.  This means that they must download those onerous rules, read them, and then go to a certifying agent such as OEFFA and send in a paper acknowledging that they have read the standards and are meeting them.  They send in $50 or so, and they can advertise that their products are organic, by SELF certification.  They cannot call them "certified organic."

So you are asking, big deal, if they do their own inspection, is it valid?  Yup, I think so.  They have done the work, they know where they need to improve, they then know about the organic potting soil and 50 other things that are new to them, and then, when they meet all of those standards, they can look you in the eye and say, "We are same as organic.  We are self certified and meet all of the standards of the organic program."

If you have slogged through all of this, I'll say one more time - do your body a favor and feed it with organic food.  Pay the extra price.  Put down that expensive sweater.  Be happy with 100 channels and give a pass to the 200 channel package.  Carpool to the family reunion, even if you have to listen to Aunt Maude blather on and on (so long as she doesn't smoke).  Take a vacation close to home --  have you REALLY explored all of the beauty that is within 100 miles of where you live?  Then take what you saved and spend it on good food.  Start with a big plate of organic vegetables and some baked organic really truly free range chicken for dinner.  Bon appetit!


  1. I was totally ignorant to the "self-certification" option. Thanks for the education on that.

    From my experience, the kinda people who put in the work it takes to make anything approaching a living via Farmers' Markets are not the kinda people who are gonna read the Standards and then not attempt to achieve them. Just making that effort to learn more about the Standards and Rules is going to affect how they farm and this is all about constantly learning and improving. It's the PROCESS and that is the fun of it too!

    Thanks again for anther great post Susie

  2. I couldn't agree more. If they know what is expected, they will do it. And if they don't want to, even after reading, they will tell you so. Not to many shy farmers out there!!