Now We Have To Worry About What Organic Means Too

Last week, while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, I bit into a strawberry, and it tasted pretty good. "Is this local?" I asked my fiancée, who'd bought the berries at a farm stand shop earlier that morning. She said they were, and I breathed that deep sigh of satisfaction that I was doing the right thing, visiting an earthy locale and eating what hath sprung from its soil.

The next day, we stopped at the farm stand again, and my fiancée was in for a shock. There, amid the organic limes and sugar snap peas and imported cheeses, an employee was portioning strawberries from a bag marked "Driscoll's" into the cute teal farm-like containers that seem to scream "local." When she told me about it later, we laughed, but then there Driscoll's was again yesterday in The New York Times, in an ominous article titled "Has 'Organic' Been Oversized?"

In the piece, the writer Stephanie Strom reports on how large corporations have started to see the value in the growing organic industry; have sought to snatch up companies known for creating organic products; and have wheedled their way onto the National Organic Standards Board. As a result, Strom suggests, "Big Organic" is now influencing decisions as to what non-organic ingredients can be included in food products that are allowed to be marked "organic" by law.

The article also notes that brands such as Bear Naked, Healthy Valley, Wholesome & Hearty and Spectrum Organics are all owned by big corporations like PepsiCo and Hain Celestial. It's getting harder, it seems, to figure out who's telling the truth when they say products are organic, local, healthy. (We've worried about this before here at Food Republic: see "Is 'Natural' A Food Marketing Scheme.") It's almost as if you need an advanced scientific degree to read labels and a direct line to the Secretary of Agriculture's office to figure out whether something marked "organic" is actually made from the things the company says it is.

As a recent first-time parent whose child is beginning to eat real food, I've become acutely aware of labels. We're trying to give our baby as little pre-packaged food as possible just to be safe, but it seems like it shouldn't have to be such a struggle to feed our daughter natural, organic foods.

Or maybe what's natural in this country is that it should be impossible to eat organic. With the political process putting food safety issues on the back burner — it's a presidential election year, not a good time to mess with the farm bill or Big Agriculture — there's little chance of anyone in the U.S. addressing the real labeling issue: genetically modified foods. (Though Marion Nestle is doing her best to keep up with the arguments for and against labeling.)

What's also troubling to me is that whether I'm vacationing in Martha's Vineyard or living where I do in Brooklyn, I seemingly have access to foods packaged by brands that have my best interests in mind, so I can't imagine what people in the rest of the country can do to eat as healthy as possible. And yet even for me, most often the "organic" option at my local store is from Organic Valley, which The Times' article notes is part of a huge cooperative called Cropp, and which doesn't have the greatest voting record on the Organic Standards Board. (Driscoll's, the California-based organic berries company that provided those strawberries I tasted on the Vineyard, has an executive with a seat on the board too; it's supposed to be a farmer's seat, and the rep from Driscoll's is not a farmer.)

Where does this leave us, the people who want to eat foods that aren't filled with unnatural preservatives and scientific-sounding ingredients? I guess praying that the local farmers at the green market are telling the truth about how they're growing their food. Or just praying, period.