Go Green

'Natural' not always nice: Deciphering deception in organic labeling

Photo Elliott Burr/Town Crier Hidden Villa's Community Supported Agriculture farm manager Jason McKenney, right, loads organic produce into baskets with the help of Max Bryer. Produce can lose its organic label if one uses fertilizers or if a product doesn't contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.


The trend for gardening at home continues to grow – and people are taking a particular interest in raising flowers and vegetables organically. With such prominent figures as First Lady Michelle Obama promoting organic gardening in the White House yard, products that cater to this trend are increasingly available.

Unfortunately, the increased interest in organic gardening has led to some confusion – and some deception – about what it means for a product to be organic. Product labels and their meanings have become a minefield for consumers interested in eco-friendly agriculture. It can be difficult to know exactly what products labeled natural, plant-based or organic signify.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designates the official organic labeling. The agency’s seal comes in several forms that denote whether a product is 100 percent organic, organic or made with organic ingredients. But anecdotal evidence suggests this multitiered labeling system is contributing to consumer confusion.

For example, if a product is labeled 100 percent organic, everything in it must be certified organic. If a product is labeled organic, that means it must contain 95 percent certified-organic ingredients. If a product contains 70 percent organic ingredients, it can be labeled as made with organic ingredients. Any product with less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot carry the USDA seal.

Another tip is that a product labeled natural is not organic. While there might be some natural ingredients in the product, that doesn’t mean that it’s safe or Earth-friendly – not to mention organic.

The USDA directs consumers to other organizations that can help them determine whether the products they purchase are 100 percent organic. The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is a non-profit, independent organization that reviews products and their rank on the USDA’s national organic standards list.

The institute provides a comprehensive list of products that pass the test for concerned consumers.

“OMRI’s list is an invaluable tool for gardeners who want to keep their plots organic,” said Claude Boisvert, president of Tree World Plant Care Products. “It makes it easier than ever to find gardening supplements that are not harmful to the environment.”

If a main concern in planting an organic garden is providing your family with safe-to-eat, healthful food from the backyard, you’ll want to ensure you’re using truly organic gardening products. At the same time, you want the garden to look great and produce well.

One of the biggest challenges in organic gardening is controlling pests in a way that is humane and safe – for people and the environment. For smaller pests, it is increasingly easy to find organic insecticidal soaps that are safe, unlike some traditional pesticides. Larger plant browsers can wreak havoc unless a rabbit or deer repellent is used. Several eco-conscious repellants are on the market, but if they’re not shelved at your store, it’s important to remember that consumers have the power to influence the products that are available.

If keeping an organic garden truly organic is important to you, discuss your concerns with local retailers. By asking them to stock products that are subject to rigorous standards, everyone in the community can have access to verified organic materials.



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