Q+A: Answers to Your Questions About Organic Food

The following are the answers to a selection of your questions on organic food, from Stonyfield Farm CEO and co-founder Gary Hirshberg and author Sam Frommartz, of "Organic, Inc."

Question: When do you expect the supply of organic food to reach the demand so that prices can come down? -- Susan in Bellevue, Wash.

Sam Fromartz: Since it takes three years to convert a conventional farm to organic production, expect continued supply shortages ahead. To fill the gap, food companies will source more organic agricultural goods from overseas, but demand is growing globally.

In the meantime, consumers can save money by buying seasonally. When certain vegetables or fruits are in season, the organic versions may even cost less than conventional. You may also save money by buying direct from an organic farm through a seasonal subscription. This type of program is known as a CSA -- community supported agriculture.

Question: How do you certify something is organic if it is grown in countries like Mexico or even China? Does the USDA certify each producer or is there a 3rd party organization that is certifying organics in developing countries? -- Ralph in Baltimore, Md.

Gary Hirshberg: By U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, any organic ingredient we use in our USDA certified organic products -- no matter what country it comes from -- must meet the U.S. organic standards. That means the products must be grown and processed under the same standards required in the U.S. and inspected and certified by a certifier accredited by the USDA. There are approximately 95 USDA organic accredited certification agencies world wide, 40 of them foreign.

For more information, explore these links:


Question: What are the benefits of baby organic food? How do other moms feel about it? I have a 6-month-old and I debate if I should feed her organic or the regular baby food. -- Dana in Riverdale, N.J.

Hirshberg: Moms are a major part of the surging growth of organic! Having a baby is a natural time when people start thinking about what they are eating and how it affects their health.

In the case of organic dairy foods for babies and toddlers, Stonyfield Farm offers the popular YoBaby line. It is made with milk from cows that were fed organic feed and have not been treated with antibiotics or artificial growth hormones, and the fruits and grains in our products were grown without the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Is organic better for your baby? Dr. William Sears, pediatrician and best-selling author, recommends organic foods for babies and toddlers. In his latest book, "The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood" (Little Brown, 2006), he notes that growing kids "are more vulnerable to the carcinogenic risks of pesticides." Further, he states, "Pesticides are stored in fat, and young children, especially infants and toddlers, have proportionately more body fat than do adults -- thus, more potential for storing toxins."

Studies have shown that residue from pesticides have been found in startling amounts in children. In 2002, a University of Washington study found that children who ate mostly organic produce had far lower levels of pesticide residues in their bodies. We certainly raised our children on organic, and we're happy we did!

More information on this important topic can be found here.

Question: It was mentioned on the broadcast that organic cows are not necessarily "grass fed." If that is the case, what are they fed? I was under the impression that they were either grazed on untreated grass or grain fed. -- Melannee in Halifax, Mass.

Fromartz: Right now, the USDA organic regulations require cows have "access to pasture" but don't define what that means. Among farms that minimize grazing, such as large-scale organic dairy farms, the animals rely on a diet of harvested organic grains and forages. On small farms, dairy farmers tend to emphasize organic pasture during the growing season because it is cheaper than buying organic feed.

Farmers and other organic advocates are trying to get the USDA to tighten up this pasture loophole so that all organic cows meet a defined minimum grazing standard. Studies show that milk from cows eating fresh grass is higher in vitamins and beneficial fats.

Hirshberg: All organic cows must have access to pasture. That means at some time in their life they are definitely consuming grass in a field. The problem with the USDA organic regulations is that they don't specify how much pasture is required. This giant loophole in the regulations is causing great concern among many in the organic community.

The amount of pasture is now the focus of deliberations by the National Organics Standards Board and National Organic Program (NOP) staff. In response to input from organic producers, consumers and organic processors, a new rule which will clarify and strengthen the pasture regulation is expected soon. Here are some public comments on the issue from the USDA Web site .

Stonyfield Farm is strongly in support of strengthening the rule in regard to pasture and closing the loophole that could undermine organic, and we eagerly await the USDA's proposed rule.

Question: When Gary Hirshberg said on "World News" that they did independent audits of "organic" fields in China, what were the results of those audits? What did they find out about organic agriculture in China? Thank you - Merle in Saline, Mich.

Hirshberg: We have purchased one organic ingredient (strawberries) from China, but because of concerns regarding cultural differences in business practices between China and the U.S., we chose to take our due diligence beyond the existing quality systems that we have in place and implemented additional audits and inspections so that we could have additional assurances that we were getting a product that met our standards. Although the strawberries were already certified by a USDA accredited certifier, we hired our own USDA accredited certifier and had them perform a separate additional inspection as well as a surprise inspection. The results were very positive, and we are confident that the operation is in compliance with USDA organic regulations.

We cannot, from our experience, make any sweeping generalizations about organic agriculture in China, but we were very pleased with the transparent process and the results from inspecting our supplier. Many people look to our company to set an example and we take that responsibility seriously. So the added step of our own inspections gave us the added assurance we needed to purchase the strawberries.

Question: What is the evidence that organic foods are healthier than non-organic foods? How do we know that something labeled organic is truly organic, and how is truly organic defined? -- Jane in Lawai, Hawaii

Fromartz: To be labeled organic, the food must be produced according to the requirements of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. The 500-plus pages of USDA regulations require organic farmers to avoid chemical pesticides and fertilizers, synthetic hormones and antibiotics, genetically modified crops and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer.

All organic animals must also be traceable to birth, an important requirement when searching for the source of disease that is not required of any conventionally raised livestock.

Organic farmers -- whether in the U.S. or overseas -- must show government-accredited inspectors each year that they are meeting the requirements of the USDA regulations. When food is labeled "organic," the name of the organic certifier must also be present as well.

As for health, the USDA organic label does not represent any specific health claim. However, studies have shown repeatedly that organic foods contain less toxic pesticides than conventional foods, reducing consumers' risk of exposure to these potentially harmful chemicals. Other studies suggest that organic foods are higher in vitamins and minerals.

Question: My wife and I try to always buy organic products and want to make sure what we are buying is not only best for us but also best for the animals, farmers, and land. -- Wesley in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Fromartz: If you are buying organic food, the farmers must meet regulated hurdles for protecting the environment and animal health.

By avoiding toxic chemicals, the organic method is arguably safer for the farmers and farmworkers. These farms avoid the run-off of agricultural chemicals that can pollute streams, waterways and drinking water sources. By avoiding the use of antibiotics, organic farmers reduce the risk of creating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Although consumers are often motivated to buy organic food because of health, the benefits to the environment, livestock and local farm communities is potentially greater.

Question: Are there brands or organic certifiers that are better than others? -- Anonymous

Hirshberg: Well, like all companies, some are better than others, but as a consumer, it's really quite hard to know. For brands, I suggest you spend time on company Web sites and get to know them. Do they speak to your concerns, like family farms, humane animal issues or strong regulations? Are they transparent in a manner with which you are comfortable? Do you get to 'meet' the producers on their website? Do they answer your questions? We get hundreds of inquiries regarding our treatment of animals, farmers and land. You should expect a reply. One caveat: if the company is too small, sometimes it can be hard to answer all inquiries, as was the case in our early days.

As for certifiers, there are 95 USDA accredited certifiers. The NOP is responsible for assuring that the certifiers are doing their job. You can check their website regularly for press releases to see if they have removed the accreditation of any of the certifiers.

One of the challenges we see is that the NOP is severely understaffed and underfunded. We urge you to support a more reasonable budget for the NOP.

Question: Do certain conventionally grown fruits/vegetables contain and/or absorb more pesticides/fertilizers from the environment than others? If so, which produce items are these and is it better to eat organic versions of these specific items? -- Anu in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Hirshberg: The Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, produced by Stonyfield Farm and the Environmental Working Group (EWG), ranks the fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest contamination by pesticides. The guide can be downloaded.

Among those foods ranked lowest in pesticides are bananas, corn and onions. Ranked highest - apples, cherries and peaches. Using this guide can help people reduce the level of pesticides ingested while consuming produce by up to 90 percent. Making the right choices is especially important for younger members of the family, since we know children are more vulnerable to environmental toxins because of their size, fast-growing metabolism, and less varied diet.

Question: What guarantee is there that organic food is actually as advertised? Is there a set standard for each type? Where can I get that information? -- Ann in Georgia.

Fromartz: For a food product to be labeled "organic," 95 percent of the ingredients of that product, excluding water and salt, must be organically produced. The additional 5 percent allows for specifically allowed non-organic ingredients such as baking powder to make baked goods.

When a food company uses the organic label, they must prove to their certifier that the food meets this 95 percent minimum requirement. Food labeled "made with organic ingredients" must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients. More detailed information is available at the NOP Web site.

Question: I would like to know if I purchase organic products from a major retailer like big chain super markets, are they the same quality as those sold in the specialty organic stores? -- Debra in Yonkers, N.Y.

Hirshberg: While we can't speak to the quality of a specific organic product, we can speak to the process of assuring organic integrity for all products labeled as organic in the U.S. Any product labeled as organic in the U.S. -- no matter where it is sold -- must be grown or produced according to the U.S. National Organic Standards, and be verified, inspected and certified by independent state or private organizations that have been accredited by the USDA. Any product with the USDA seal must be a minimum of 95 percent organic.

Certification includes inspections of farms and processing facilities, detailed record keeping, and periodic testing of soil and water to ensure that growers and handlers are meeting the U.S. standards. Certifiers inspect and verify that there is an audit trail tracing all organic ingredients back to the organic fields from which they were grown. All Stonyfield Farm products are third-party certified by Quality Assurance International (QAI).

Question: My daughter is in the process of starting a grazing Jersey dairy in Georgia. She is not yet to the point of going organic, but how would you suggest she break into that market? -- Ann in Brunswick, Ga.

Fromartz: If your daughter is grazing cows on pasture that has not received any chemicals or fertilizers for three years, she is almost organic. To get organically certified, the cows must be fed 100 percent organic feed or pasture for at least a year and receive no prohibited materials, such as antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.

On the East Coast, the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, with several hundred organic dairy farms as members, has information about transitioning to organic dairy production. They can be located on the Internet. Many organic milk processors also have information and offer transition incentives, since there is a big shortage of organic milk.