- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2000

Ed Belote Sr. makes more than 10 tons of organic compost each year. It is spread on the land where he grows more than 100 types of fruits and vegetables on his 7-acre farm in Rising Sun, Md.
Mr. Belote is an organic farmer. He uses no pesticides and no chemicals. Certified by the state of Maryland, he supplies health-food stores and private customers with a weekly delivery of whatever is fresh from the farm.
"The high mineral content of our vegetables is obvious," he says. "Our vegetables are sweet and tasty. You can even feel the difference. At times, I have asked customers to hold out their hand. I drop an 8-ounce, fully red, ripe tomato into their palms and ask if they can feel the solid weight. My tomatoes feel like lead balls. Pale, store-bought tomatoes are very light, almost hollow."
Mr. Belote is among the believers that organic foods are better looking, better tasting, better for the environment and naturally more nutritious. However, some dietitians differ. Taste and looks are subjective, they say, but nutritional value is not.
"There is no evidence that organic foods are more nutritious," says David Klurfeld, chairman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at Wayne State University in Detroit. "The benefit you are getting is from any fruits and vegetables. The more you eat, the healthier you will be you'll have less chance of cancer, heart disease and obesity. If it is pesticides that are harming us, you would be much worse off if you ate lots of fruits and vegetables, but that is not the case."
To Lorraine Stretawski, however, the proof is in the peas, spinach, avocados and kale.
Mrs. Stretawski of Newark, Del., began eating organically after seeking a natural solution to chronic immune-system problems. Two years after going to a diet of raw fruits and vegetables, free-range chicken and organic dairy products, she says she feels "95 percent better."
"I believe the nutrient value is higher," says Mrs. Stretawski, 53. "The vitamin value is higher. The chemicals are not there. I've learned to eat things I never had before."

What is organic, anyway?

Organic foods are certified by 49 agencies nationwide, run either by the state or independently. To be certified organic, as Mr. Belote's farm is, the farm undergoes strict annual scrutiny. No chemicals must be used in any stage of production: growing, shipping, handling, stor-ing or processing. Crops are rotated from field to field to manage pests and weeds and improve soil fertility. Cattle and chickens cannot be treated routinely with antibiotics or hormones. There can be no genetically engineered or irradiated products.
"Basically, it means no synthetic materials were involved," says Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, a Minnesota-based organization. "Chemical-intensive agriculture is pretty scary."
Without thorough knowledge of who grew the produce and which agency certified it, the exact meaning of "organic" is hard to determine. Standards vary greatly. What is allowable in Maryland, for instance, may be banned in California. That is about to change, though. By the end of 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will put into place national standards that every grower, processor and certifier will have to meet.
"Our intent is to give the consumer more peace of mind," says Kathleen Merrigan, administrator of the department's Agricultural Marketing Service, the group that wrote the new standards. "Right now, when you see something that says 'organic cereal,' you don't know if it is 40 percent organic ingredients or 100 percent organic."
The standards were 10 years in the making. Congress called for national standards in 1990, but it took a decade for the massive document to be written. When the Department of Agriculture wrote its first proposal in 1997, it received more than 200,000 comments and complaints from the public. Many voiced concern that the department was allowing irradiation and a degradation of organic standards.
The rewritten version, released last March, was better accepted, and the final standards will be out by this December, Ms. Merrigan says.
Significant changes will come in labeling of mixed products such as cereal and bread. Manufacturers will have to state roughly what percentage of the ingredients are organic. Products will be 100 percent organic, 95 percent or more organic, or cereal made with organic ingredients (if made with 50 percent to 95 percent organic ingredients). If less than 50 percent organic, the word organic cannot be on the front label, Ms. Merrigan says.
"Right now, you can buy something that says 'organic soup,' but it may only be 50 percent organic," Ms. Merrigan says.
The department also will require that every grower be certified. About half of the nation's 12,000 organic growers are certified now, Ms. Merrigan estimates.
"It will be a law that you will have to be certified," she says. "Right now, there is a whole universe of people making organic claims. They will all have to have third-party inspection."
The department will charge certifiers for accreditation, Ms. Merrigan says, but the exact fee has not yet been determined. To keep prices from going up, she predicts, government subsidies will be used to offset the initial cost of certification.
Small farmers, including Mr. Belote, are skeptical.
"Of course I would like to see very stringent organic rules come about," he says, "and I am also concerned that the government fees for certification or high lab fees for residue testing will be too expensive for my small farm."

Worth the price?

As it is, organic foods already cost more than conventional ones, adding up to a $6 billion annual business, according to the Department of Agriculture.
A 1998 Consumer Reports study of thousands of organic items says that on the average, organic foods cost 57 percent more. That holds true at the mom-and-pop farm stands and at large chains such as the local Fresh Fields, where organic bananas go for 98 cents a pound, 40 cents per pound more than conventional bananas.
Organic foods cost more because of the labor involved in producing them.
"I do everything by hand," Mr. Belote says.
Says Mr. Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association: "The bottom line is, it costs money to do things right. If you want to cut corners and have filthy food and irradiate it, it will cost less. The correct price for organic food is the amount it takes for farmers and processors to do it the way we want it and still make a decent profit."
Organic foods also cost more because fearful consumers have shown they are willing to pay the premium, says Mr. Klurfeld of Wayne State University.
"Organic foods may not be as safe, and they almost always cost more," he says. "That is usually not a sales plus, but the average consumer, believing that organic foods are healthful and better for the environment, seems willing to pay."
Consumers worry too much about pesticide risk, Mr. Klurfeld says.
Pesticides are poisonous com-pounds that kill insects, weeds and fungal pests that damage crops. Congress has strict guidelines on how much of the thousands of pesticides can be used on which crops.
The government also has a sophisticated monitoring system. In 1995, for instance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration analyzed 5,101 samples of domestically produced food. It found no pesticide residues in 64 percent of the items. The test found 34 percent had detectable residues that were below allowable levels. One percent of the items had residues that exceeded tolerances, and another 1 percent had residues for which there were no established tolerances.
Confusing the picture is the fact that some crops contain naturally occurring pesticides, Mr. Klurfeld says. Also, the allowable levels for pesticides are based on animal tests and a theoretical safety level for humans. If a substance exceeds the limit, it may not really be harmful, he says.
"There are natural compounds within produce that repel insects," Mr. Klurfeld says. "Those greatly outweigh the chemicals. The potential risks of using chemicals are environmental, not personal. Farmers, who are exposed to pesticides all the time, do not have any greater risk of cancer than anyone else."
Mrs. Stretawski isn't convinced. Organic foods helped boost her immune system when medicine and conventional foods couldn't, she says. She plans to eat chemical-free from now on. The only way to ensure that is to buy organic, she says.
"With all those chemicals, the body doesn't have much a chance," Mrs. Stretawski says.

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