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USDA Releases Standards for Organic Foods

Aired December 20, 2000 - 4:45 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: So you're in the grocery aisle and you look and the label on the package says "organic." But does that accurately reflect the product inside?

The federal government is taking steps in an effort to ensure that it does. A set of organic food standards a decade in the making has just been released.

CNN medical correspondent Linda Ciampa now with details.


LINDA CIAMPA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's a $6 billion- a-year industry operating without national standards, until now. The newly established rules come at a time when more Americans are concerned about growth hormones in cows, pesticides on produce, and antibiotics in poultry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It just feels cleaner and more nutritious.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's better for the animals that live on this planet with us. It's better for us in the long run.

CIAMPA: Sales of organics have surged more than 20 percent each year in the past decade. According to the Food Marketing Institute, more than half of Americans now buy organic food at least once a month. Organic food generally costs a bit more, but how much more? If you bought chicken, broccoli and potatoes from a supermarket that sells conventional foods, the dinner for four would cost you about $7. If you bought an organic version, it would cost nearly 9.

Even though many consumers are willing to pay the difference, there's little evidence to support the assumption that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.

Still, there's the issue of taste.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They taste better, they look better.

CIAMPA: And the Organic Trade Association says organic production is better for the environment and claims there is a connection between pesticides and the potential for disease.

(on camera): However, the government maintains pesticide residues found on foods are low enough not to cause harm to humans. Still, the EPA is currently reviewing acceptable tolerance levels in all pesticides used in agriculture.

Linda Ciampa, CNN, Atlanta.


CHEN: And are these guidelines enough to make sure we're getting the real thing when we look for organic foods? Joining us from Washington is Rhona Applebaum of the National Food Processors Association, and in Baltimore, Maryland for us, Charles Margulis of Greenpeace, the environmental watchdog organization.

Mr. Margulis, let's begin with you. What does these -- what does this new announcement from USDA do for us as consumers?

CHARLES MARGULIS, GREENPEACE: Well, I think it standardize organic production across the country, so consumers know, when they're buying organic foods, exactly what they're getting.

This is an industry that went to the government and asked for regulation, unlike other big business that runs away from government regulations. There have been bumps in the road. When USDA first proposed organic standards a couple of years ago, they allowed that organic production might include, for example, genetically engineered crops. Greenpeace and other groups took action against this, and the USDA received almost 300,000 comments from Americans who wanted safe organic standards.

CHEN: Ms. Applebaum, let's let you jump in here. Does this actually improve the product that I'm going to purchase in the store?

RHONA APPLEBAUM, NATIONAL FOOD PROCESSING ASSOCIATION: What we're looking at is something that is a consumer choice, and we support very much the choice and the options available to consumers. But in no way, shape or form should this be viewed as something that is either safer or more nutritious.

It's a consumer choice. All foods sold in the marketplace are safe. And again, this -- this meets the needs of those individuals who have a philosophy against conventional farming techniques.

CHEN: There are folks, Mr. Margulis, who say that even what the USDA does is not enough in terms of telling us exactly what we're getting.

MARGULIS: Yes, and I think Ms. Applebaum's point is not well- taken. In fact, we know what the cost of toxic pesticides in our environment and our food is. It's billions of dollars a year in health costs and environmental costs. Taxpayers pay for those costs, not the corporate agribusiness that puts these chemicals into our environment.

CHEN: But you're talking about the bigger picture there in terms of me. I mean, if I'm only concerned with my own self-interest, if I go to the produce aisle, and I see two different kinds of tomatoes, am I really getting a healthier tomato if I get the organic one?

MARGULIS: Well, what you're getting is a healthier production system not only for you, but also for the environment, for farm workers and for the planet. Those health costs go down to individual consumers as well as into the environment in general.

CHEN: But you're still talking about the bigger picture. I mean, is that tomato going to have more vitamins in it or whatever it is that we think that kind of produce would be improved by?

MARGULIS: Well, there have been several studies on organic foods that do show higher levels of certain nutrients. There's no conclusive evidence one way or the other yet, but this is still something that consumers, when they're looking at organics, know that the big picture is really what counts.

CHEN: Ms. Applebaum, the question to you then: Are you producing products, when -- we're talking about products that are not organic -- that might be deficient to me in some way?

APPLEBAUM: Well, first off, the representative from Greenpeace is completely wrong. There is no difference between products -- let's use your example of a tomato -- between the nutritional content of that organically grown tomato versus the conventionally grown tomato. So, that's absolutely false.

And of the things that would be missing, especially if you are looking for a higher vitamin-content tomato -- let's put it out on the face of it. Only through things like in terms of certain breeding techniques are you going to increase the vitamin content. And...

CHEN: Mr. Margulis.

MARGULIS: I'd be happy to provide Ms. Applebaum with several studies that show organic foods can be nutritionally higher than conventional foods. As I mentioned, this isn't true across the boards in every single food, but there have been several studies that have showed this.

CHEN: What about...

APPLEBAUM: Well, excuse me, but I look at the peer-reviewed literature, literature that's going through a statistical review process...

MARGULIS: I'm talking about studies from the United Nations, from the Food & Agriculture Organization, from organic associations across the world. These have been done several times.

CHEN: Ms. Applebaum, why...


APPLEBAUM: And I'm looking at independent scientists that don't agree with you.

CHEN: Why do we not know? Why is it not consistent? I mean, shouldn't the answers be coming back the same way to both of you?

APPLEBAUM: Well, even the U.S. government, via the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as FDA, their analyses demonstrate that there is no difference in the nutrient content between an organically grown tomato, for example, or a conventionally grown tomato. And in fact, the safety issues that have been raised that organic is somehow safer, they're absolutely false.


It is a marketing twice. And one of the things that we're very happy to see is that there's going to be uniform information associated with organic. And we encourage very strongly that the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and all stakeholders involved in food and the production of food put the facts on the table for the consumer and don't mislead them into thinking that this product in some way, shape, or form is going to be healthier and safer for them.

CHEN: Mr. Margulis.

MARGULIS: Organic consumers have known for 20 years that organics are better for people and better for the planet. That's why this industry is the fastest-growing sector of the food industry.

People want food that's safe for them, that's safe for the planet, that's going to provide food sustainably into the future, and not factory-farmed food that runs the risk of disease and contamination.


APPLEBAUM: You're giving personal opinions. You're not giving scientific facts. And the consumer and the people who are watching this program deserve to know the truth, and the truth is organic is an option for them to buy. It's another consumer choice. But in no way, shape or form are these products either nutritionally superior or safer.

MARGULIS: The scientific -- the scientific fact is that the cost of pesticides are billions of dollars a year in health costs and environmental cost. That's a fact. There's no disagreement about that.

Cornell University studies have shown the billions of dollars that taxpayers pay to clean up pesticides in the environment and to pay for the health costs of pesticides...

APPLEBAUM: With all due respect...

MARGULIS: Organic farmers exclude the use of these toxic chemicals and ensure that food is safer for the people and safe for the planet.

APPLEBAUM: You're using arguments to support your perspective in terms of a philosophy toward farming. MARGULIS: And you're using arguments to support your perspective.

APPLEBAUM: No, I'm using science. I hate to say it.


CHEN: All right. I'm going to have to cut both of you on that note.


CHEN: Rhona Applebaum, National Food Processors Association...

APPLEBAUM: Thank you.

CHEN: ... Charles Margulis of Greenpeace.

MARGULIS: Thank you.

CHEN: Thank you both for being with us today.



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