What Does “Organic” Mean?

Crozet Market’s expanded organic produce offerings include a non-refrigerated section. Photo: Clover Carroll.

You gotta appreciate a man who is enthusiastic about vegetables. “Our new organic supplier gives us such great quality at competitive prices,” said Raphael Strumlauf, owner of Crozet Market (formerly known as Crozet Great Valu), “that we’ve been able to greatly expand our organic produce section, and our sales have tripled in the past few months. What I focus on is the quality of the individual product, and I can tell you those greens are really good. The rainbow chard is sweet, with no bitter taste at all! And there is only about a 2% difference in price from conventionally farmed greens—as opposed to over 20% difference in the old days.” I tried that rainbow chard, and he was right!

“We try to buy local whenever we can,” Strumlauf continued—a practice which not only supports the local economy, but protects the environment by reducing pollution during transportation. “Our fresh herbs come from Shenandoah Growers, but are packaged under the house organic brand, Wild Harvest. Products carrying the Wild Harvest label are grown all over the country. But a lot of our produce comes from Cal Organic in California, which has a much longer growing season than Virginia.” 

Crozet Market owner Raphael Strumlauf with store manager Jeffrey Roberts in front of the expanded organic produce section. Photo: Clover Carroll.

Many of us try to buy organic when we can—to keep the chemicals in our bodies to a minimum, protect the environment, and support the humane treatment of animals—but often the price of organic products can seem prohibitive. “As buying organic has become more popular with consumers, supply has responded to the increased demand,” Strumlauf continued. We can now get high-quality products at reasonable prices. We carry organic products in every category of the store—including meat, dairy, coffee, soups, herbs, and sweeteners—even spices—to name only a few.” The expanded CGV organic produce section now includes a non-refrigerated section that offers organic potatoes, onions, avocados, and more.

But what does “organic” mean, anyway? And how do we know where our food really comes from? According to USDA’s “Organic 101” website, “Organic is a labeling term found on products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. In order to make an organic claim or display the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Seal, the final product must follow strict production and handling standards and go through the organic certification process. The standards address a variety of factors such as soil quality, animal raising practices, and pest and weed control. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering (GMO) may not be used. Organic produce must be grown on soil that had no prohibited substances (most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) applied for three years prior to harvest. As for organic meat, the standards require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors, fed organic feed, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.”

Zachary Miller’s Timbercreek Farm sells “clean,” antibiotic- and hormone-free grassfed beef at Crozet Market, among others. Submitted photo.

Obtaining USDA organic certification can be an arduous process. “Organic certification requires that farmers and handlers document their processes and get inspected every year. Organic on-site inspections account for every component of the operation, including…seed sources, soil conditions, crop health, weed and pest management, water systems, inputs, contamination and commingling risks and prevention, and record-keeping.”

There are four labeling categories for organic products: 100% organic, Organic, “made with” organic ingredients, and specific organic ingredients—but only the first two are permitted to display the USDA Organic seal. In the most common “Organic” category, the product and ingredients must be certified organic, except where specified on National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. No more than five percent of the combined total ingredients may contain non-organic content.

The USDA organic seal certifies that the product is free of chemical pesticides, fertilizer, antibiotics, and hormones, and does not contain genetically-modified ingredients.

Additionally, the label must include the name of the certifying agent. The National Organic Program (NOP)—part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service—was created to protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal. “NOP defends the seal by taking appropriate enforcement actions if there are violations of the standards,” based on complaints as well as the annual inspections.

But there is another side to USDA certification. For one thing, “the USDA certification is so grueling, labor intensive, and expensive, it prices many small farms out of the market,” Strumlauf explained. “For example, the packaged lettuce mixes from Schuyler Greens”—a farm located in southern Albemarle County—“are chemical and pesticide free, but not certified organic.” Both Zachary Miller of Timbercreek Farm on Garth Road—which sells “clean,” grass-fed beef without the use of medicated feeds, hormones, or antibiotics at Crozet Market and Market Street Market downtown—and Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Swoope have chosen not to pursue the USDA certification process because it interferes with, rather than promoting, enlightened farming practices such as pasture rotation that “allows us to contribute positively to the stewardship of our local ecosystem and results in a delectable meat….free of the nasty additives used in feed-lot production” and shopping local. Polyface’s goal is “to develop environmentally, economically, and emotionally enhancing agricultural prototypes and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.” Both farmers are passionate about what they do, and I can personally vouch for the deliciousness of their meats. Both farms welcome visitors.

“USDA certification by itself has not done enough to change the mechanisms of how people farm,” explained Miller. “It does not go far enough in regulating production practice; the original vision and goals of the original 1970s organic movement have been lost.” Large-scale agribusiness companies—also known as ‘factory farming’— have co-opted the language and learned to game the system, spending a lot of money to bend USDA certification to help them. For just one example, in order to label their chicken “antibiotic free,” corporate farmers use the work-around of mixing roxarone into chicken feed to kill bacteria. But roxarone contains a non-lethal dose of arsenic, which is a known carcinogen. Is that really an improvement?

“We need a revolution in the production mechanism to make healthful, nutrient-dense products fit for human consumption available,” continued Miller, who was a professional steeplechase jockey before he founded Timbercreek Farm in 2007. “I realized that in order to feed my family well, I had to take control of my food stream.” He has three children.

Joel Salatin. Photo courtesy Polyface Farms.

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm agrees. Polyface—which sells eggs, beef, pork, chicken, and holiday turkeys at Greenwood Gourmet Market, Rebecca’s Natural Foods and many others—was featured in Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. as an example of sustainable agriculture practice in contrast to factory farming.

“Government organic certification is decidedly an industry trade organization to promote marketing,” Salatin declared in a recent email. “Its first responsibility is to producers, not consumers.” For example, “if we followed government organic certified stipulations, we would have to import our feedstocks from foreign countries, with dubious paper trails in between, rather than from our neighbor farmers. We could not purchase [feed] from neighbors—many of them Amish and Mennonites—who practice organic principles but do not want the expense, hassle, and regulatory intimidation of paper-based licenses.” Moreover, “certification allows many chemicals to be used, and that list is growing all the time. Loopholes for feed exist as well.”

Salatin actually sat on the first organic certification committee organized in Virginia after passage of the U.S. Organic Foods Production Act in 1990—but quit in frustration over unfair practices. “The National Organic Standards Board is now stacked with industry members that countervail the most basic expectations of the original law that established the government program. Our regulators certify factory farming.” Salatin is the author of many books and articles and editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer out of Ridgeland, Mississippi. He recently co-authored the book Beyond Labels with Dr. Sina McCullough, which points out the “lack of honesty and clarity in all labels. You just can’t capture biological and contextual nuances on a label.”  The book is due out this summer.

Photo: Clover Carroll.

Another example of controversy about what “organic” should mean is hydroponics—the practice of growing produce with air and water but without soil. For example, Shenandoah Growers’ website explains that they use “indoor bioponic growing technology.” “With bioponics, it is possible to grow organic produce using hydroponic technologies.” According to maximumyield.com, bioponics is a hybrid of hydroponics and organics that involves the use of a certified-organic nutrient in a hydroponic solution. Salatin and many other organic farmers argue that hydroponically grown produce should not be eligible for organic certification. “By definition, you cannot have an organic plant unless it grows in soil. Hydroponics inherently dismisses the complexity of soil and substitutes the simplicity of human-fabricated concoctions. They also argue that produce grown in soil has better flavor and superior nutritional content and organic farming benefits the health and regeneration of soil. “The U.S. is the only country in the world that certifies hydroponic produce as organic.”  

As I have learned, the issue of what “organic” means, and what true organic farming involves, is incredibly complex. The government doesn’t own the word “organic,” so the educated consumer can establish their own interpretation. Both Miller and Salatin assert that the USDA organic certification does some good, just not enough, and creates unnecessary obstacles to good farming practices, such as the three-year rule. But if we can’t entirely trust the USDA Organic seal, what can we trust? My best advice is to gain as much direct knowledge as possible of the source of your food before buying. Miller recommends that you “become an educated eater, find what is important to you, and follow those brands.” Doing much of your produce shopping at local farmers’ markets is a good start, but be sure to ask each farmer what kind of farming practices they use. Or better yet, grow your own! 

This is definitely an area where the caveat emptor warning applies: Buyer Beware!  


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