- Berkeley, CA - For Linda Corrado, stepping into Manhattan's
Agata & Valentina gourmet food store used to be a field day. Fresh
purple potatoes, crook-necked yellow squash, and fruits and vegetables
of every sort screamed for her attention. Aromas of fresh focaccia and
marzipan fruit tarts wafting by her nose lured her in. And the plentiful
samples of everything from salty Greek olives to crunchy French cornichons
tempted and tingled her palate.
- But things are different for the 31-year-old Manhattan
resident now that she's a mother of two. Corrado's food choices are no
longer ruled by mere taste or momentary cravings. Overpowering is her
maternal duty to provide healthy food for her children. To her, that means
ensuring that the produce she buys is organically grown.
- "I really buy organics for Giulietta," Corrado
says, referring to her two-year-old daughter. "When I choose organics,
I'm making a decision for her health."
- That decision could become easier now that the U.S. Department
of Agriculture (USDA) has unveiled a set of guidelines intended to instill
some law and order in the loosely regulated organic produce industry.
The new guidelines aim to assure consumers like Corrado that the organic
produce they select has indeed been grown without toxic pesticides or
herbicides, synthetic fertilizer, and hormones.
- Produce grown from genetically engineered seeds and sewage
sludge fertilizer and those that are irradiated would also not qualify
as organic. It's a chemical-free approach to farming, one that has caused
the fast-growing industry to boast yearly sales in the billions.
- The growth has, in part, leaned on consumers' assumptions
that organic produce is "more healthy" and that it's wholly free
of disease-causing pesticides and herbicides. Unfortunately, such confidence
has been misplaced, says Holly Givens, a spokesperson for the Organic
Trade Association. While tests have shown that most organic fruits and
vegetables have lower levels of synthetic pesticides, they still show
some contamination, either from chemicals seeping in from previously contaminated
soil, blown in from adjacent fields, or from contaminated rainwater.
- The new proposal can't "control the wind and the
rain," Givens says. It could, however, put to rest any questions people
like Corrado have about what they're getting for the extra money they're
- What to Do in the Meantime?
- Until the guidelines are in place, Givens suggests that
shoppers look for labels reading "certified organic." The term
refers to produce meeting the production standards of one of 45 independent
third-party programs that establish standards for organic products. To
qualify, the vast majority of these programs require farmers to have used
organic farming techniques, such as not using toxic pesticides and fertilizers,
for at least three years. The programs mostly differ on how far organic
fields must be from fields using conventional techniques.
- "The label means that somebody has come into the
facility and inspected it," Givens says.
- Shoppers may also want to read labels and check the product
for seals or symbols that indicate the produce complies with the government's
general health and safety requirements.
- Straightening Out the Public's Perception
- Even when organic foods begin to carry official federal
seals, it's doesn't mean that the foods are more nutritious, says Laurie
Demerit of the market research firm The Hartman Group. Consumers mistakenly
believe that organic-grown food provides more vitamins and minerals, while
there is no scientific evidence that this is true, she says.
- Several years ago, the firm found that people who bought
organic produce and products did so to support an environmentally sensitive
approach to farming. "Today they're saying it's better for their
health and that of their kids," Demeritt says. "People seem
to like the idea and the lifestyle of 'organic.' They're almost doing
it as a social thing -- they want to be in that lifestyle niche."
- The main reason to buy organic, Givens says, is to support
the environment. "When people choose organic they're working to preserve
water resources and prevent the kinds of agriculture-related problems that
have started to pop up," she says. "Consumers can make a choice
for a better environment."
- The choice couldn't be more simple for Corrado. For her,
it's a matter of watching her children thrive and grow, without having
to worry about potentially hazardous chemicals.
- Christine Cosgrove is a freelance writer who specializes
in health and medical issues. She has worked as a reporter for UPI in
New York City and as a senior editor at Parenting Magazine. She lives
in Berkeley, California
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