- The Washington Times - Monday, October 21, 2002

Organic is no longer just a general description for naturally produced food. This week it becomes another government seal required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that certifies a product meets the government definition of organic.
"In the past, there's been a lot of confusion and various labels that have said a food product is organic," said USDA spokeswoman Becky Ubkenholz.
The USDA began different labeling programs for organic products in the early '90s as more food companies began stretching the meaning of organic foods to market the popular food type. But there was no clear definition.
Now, consumers will know which foods have met government standards for being considered organic. Those standards include producers not using pesticides, antibiotics, genetically altered organisms or chemical and sewer sludge fertilizers.
Consumers could see the new organic seal in their grocery store aisles as early as today. Supermarkets expect certified foods in the stores no later than the next five to six weeks.
Giant Food is giving retailers a grace period "to give them time to certify their foods since this is a new government regulation," said spokesman Jamie Miller.
"Once the new seals really start streaming into our stores, we'll have displays up to let consumers know what these new labels mean," she said.
The new organic labeling system will include three categories that identify the "organic" extent of a product.
Products will be stamped "100 percent organic" if all ingredients are organic, "organic" if ingredients are at least 95 percent organic, "made with organic ingredients" if ingredients are at least 70 percent organic, and "some organic ingredients" if ingredients are less than 70 percent organic.
While the new standards help inform consumers, they may not persuade more people to buy organic brands, said Phil Lempert, food industry analyst.
Organic products typically cost 10 percent to 15 percent more, and so far only 3 percent of mainstream shoppers support the $7.2 billion industry, he said.
"Organic shoppers are still a fringe market, even though the industry is growing exponentially," said Mr. Lempert with ACNielsen, an international marketing-research firm in Schaumburg, Ill.
"But we're seeing a higher number of large food corporations market and buy products that are organic," he said.
Local organic producers say it's worth the additional operating costs to conform to the government standards, which a USDA report said consumes 20 percent in overall costs.
Seth Goldman said the official organic seal has been a stronger marketing tool for Honest Tea Co. in Bethesda.
"Being able to say we're organic has attracted more retailers because it's hip to be organic now," Mr. Goldman said.
The iced tea producer, which changed suppliers to comply with the new rules, used its organic label to snag a deal with 7-Eleven Co. this month to sell the tea in its Colorado convenience stores.
"Seven-Eleven was looking for a way to draw more female customers into the stores, and organic products generally draw a larger female customer base," Mr. Goldman said, expecting the company to grow from $3.2 million to $5 million in sales this year.
Mr. Goldman said he also hopes to capitalize on the brand loyalty of organic shoppers, who tend to purchase organic foods from the same brand, according to an ACNielsen report in August.
Though the certification hasn't increased profits for Potomac Vegetable Farms Inc. in Vienna, Va., Hiu Newcomb, co-owner, said having government approval gives her customers peace of mind.
"It's a good, paper assurance to our customers that we are selling fresh and natural produce," Ms. Newcomb said.
"As long as the prices remain reasonable, we really want to have all our products be 100 percent organic."
So far, the only changes for the farm has been switching to an organic potting soil, which has offset harvesting time, Ms. Newcomb said.
"There's always room for cheating the system, but producers who want to [cooperate] do it to give customers a better idea of where the food is coming from," she said.

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