Baffled by the bevy of "organic" and "all-natural" labels at the grocery store? You're not alone.
The United States Department of Agriculture has defined four classifications of organic foods - "100 percent organic," "organic," "made with organic ingredients" and "some organic ingredients.
But what about cage-free versus free-range eggs? And what is grass-fed beef, milk and cheese?
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
David Rice, owner of Ojala Farm and Clover Creek Cheese Cellar LLC in?Williamsburg, examines a wheel of cheese. Rice sells his cheese under the label “pasture fed,”?which means that his cows eat silage, hay and some grain in addition to grazing.
"It's confusing for the producers, never mind the people trying to shop," said Christine Wise, who co-owns Friends Farm in Williamsburg with her husband, John Favinger.
The USDA seal means that the farm's organic certification has been verified by a third party, said Melanie Saffer, certification director with Pennsylvania Certified Organics in Spring Mills. PCO is a USDA-accredited certification agency.
To become organically certified, farmers must submit paper work to PCO, which then sends an independent inspector to the farm to verify the organic practices. There's a $600 fee to submit the paperwork as well as an inspector's fee, which depends on the size of the operation and the work involved in verification. Saffer said it usually runs around a couple hundred dollars.
100 percent organic
The product must contain 100 percent organically produced ingredients, not counting added water and salt
Must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients, not counting added water and salt
Must not contain added sulfites.
May contain up to 5 percent of nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients which are not commercially available in organic form; and/or other substances allowed by USDA standards
Made with organic ingredients
Must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, not counting added water and salt
Must not contain added sulfites; except that, wine may contain added sulfur dioxide in accordance with USDA standards.
May contain up to 30 percent of a non-organically produced agricultural ingredients; and/or other substances, including yeast, allowed by USDA standards
May contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients, not counting added water and salt.
May contain more than 30 percent of nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients; and/or other substances
Confinement of layers to a building, room or open area with unlimited access to feed, water and the outside environment. The outside area may be fenced. Free range would also be an acceptable description of eggs originating from a certified organic egg production facility.
Hens can roam indoors in a barn or poultry house. There isn't a guarantee for access to the outdoors. The AMS defines cage free as confinement of layers to a building, room or enclosed area with continuous access to feed and water. The layers are free to roam within the confined area.
Throughout their lifetime, 99 percent of the diet for ruminant animals was grass, except in the weaning state where they relied on milk. These animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.
Source:?USDA Agricultural Marketing Service
Paperwork and inspections must be submitted annually.
USDA offers definitions for grass fed, cage free and free range but does not offer certifications for those categories at this time, Saffer said.
"If a consumer is wondering, 'What does this label mean?,' they should go to the Web site for that specific label to see if it is third-party verified," Saffer said. "There are some that are accredited, and there are some that are just a group of farmers checking on each other because they don't want the government involved."
Friends Farm is not organically certified, Wise said, but "99 percent" of everything sold is directly from the farm, where they don't use any chemical pesticides or commerical or chemical fertilizers.
"There are organic pesticides you can use that will still kill every beneficial bug in the field," she said. "We go through a lot of trouble to draw birds and honeybees here."
At Clover Creek Cheese Cellar in Williamsburg, David and Terry Rice and their five children make and sell pasture-fed cheese from their cows on Ojala Farm. Pasture-fed means that their cows graze on pasture as long as it's available, but in the winter, they eat hay, grain and silage.
The operation is a seasonal dairy, as the Rices only make cheese when the cows are on pasture in the summer. But because of the winter diet, they can't sell it as a grass-fed cheese, David Rice said.
"To me, it's more of a lifestyle choice," he said. "It's the philosophy of wanting to be natural, wanting to be sustainable. This is more mental work; we're not running the tractor, running equipment. They're just there, eating the grass."
Dairies that want to sell USDA-certified organic milk must feed organic hay - and that's where Ed Galovich of Northern Cambria comes in. He grows organic hay and row crops on Galovich Farms. He doesn't use any chemicals and would someday like to run a no-till farm.
"When we choose to be organic, we're looking at soil health," Galovich said. "I went to school to be a soil scientist. It's all about the soils. If you don't take care of the soils they can't take care of you."
Soil health is where organic foods start, said Jeff Moyer, farm director at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown. The Rodale Institute is a nonprofit organization that researches organic farming techniques.
"Vitamins and minerals are not in the plant or the food - they have to be in the soil," said Moyer, who is also chairman of the National Organics Standards Board. "As we degrade the soil, we deplete the soil's ability to feed us nutrients."
Those nutrients are why organic foods typically cost more at the grocery store, Moyer said, though some retail prices are declining, such as organic milk and carrots.
USDA makes no claims that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally produced food, but Moyer said several studies show organic foods do have more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Advocates of conventional farming say organic techniques could never feed the world, though Moyer, Galovich, Rice and Wise say it is possible.
"With organic farms, it's never been a question of whether we could feed the world," Moyer said. "The productivity of an organic farm isn't measured by how much we produce, but how we produce it."