Organic foods

Back before the U.S. Department of Agriculture got involved, organic was a pretty simple concept. Food either was or it wasn’t.

But in the four years since big government stepped in clear up all the confusion, clarity has been in short supply. For that, you can thank big business and its profit-driven desires to not only jump on the trend, but also to completely change it.

Before the USDA’s involvement, the de facto organic labeling standard was California’s. Products from around the country sported labels boasting of meeting those standards, which basically meant you were enjoying foods grown without chemicals. It also meant your carrot hadn’t been infused with wombat genes.

Of course, you didn’t have to meet those standards to label a product organic. It was an honor system thing. Which was fine for granola-crunching folks like me who knew which products to trust, and which not to. Admittedly, others were kind of at the mercy of trust.

Concern over this somewhat haphazard approach prompted Congress to get the USDA involved. And so in 2002, national organic labeling standards were rolled out. But the result might be even more haphazard.

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HOW TO READ A LABEL

Anything labeled ‘‘100 percent organic’’ is -- hold on -- made entirely of organic ingredients. Nudge that down to 95 percent and you can only call it ‘‘organic.’’ Hit at least 70 percent and you’ve got ‘‘made with organic ingredients.’’

Anything less and the package must read ‘‘big industry is trying to kill you.’’ OK, that’s a lie. The word ‘‘organic’’ just can’t appear anywhere on the package. But for some folks the former is implied.

Trouble is, organics are popular. So popular, they are one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry. So popular, even Wal-Mart is stocking them.

The problem is that this almost explosive interest in organics has prompted a wave of package claims that add to the confusion.

‘‘Natural,’’ for example. Sounds good. Makes you think of happy vegetables in sunny fields. Must be good for you.

Maybe. With meat and poultry, it means no chemical or synthetic colors, flavors or anything else not ‘‘natural’’ to the product are added. As for the rest of the food world, it’s not particularly meaningful. Natural does not mean the product is good for you or that they weren’t dosed with chemicals while being grown.

‘‘Fresh’’ is one of my favorites. Seems obvious, but in the food labeling world, all it means is the food wasn’t frozen. And in circular logic only our government could craft, fresh is distinguished from ‘‘fresh frozen’’ and ‘‘frozen fresh,’’ which mean quickly frozen while still fresh.

And don’t even get me started on ‘‘GMO-free,’’ ‘‘free-range,’’ ‘‘grass-fed’’ and ‘‘cage-free.’’ All warm and fuzzy terms that in agricultural and food production applications bear little resemblance to the images they conjure for consumers. A cynic might say that’s the point.

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NEW CATEGORIES

The popularization of organics also has spurred the creation of new terms, such as ‘‘Protected Harvest.’’ This private certification means a food was produced using practices greener than conventional, but not necessarily organic.

Anything that dumps fewer chemicals into the environment is good. But for consumers this label is virtually meaningless.

Acceptable Protected Harvest practices vary from crop to crop, region to region. I spent 15 minutes talking to one of the group’s directors and still can’t tell you what it means to buy a Protected Harvest tomato.

Some products also claim green cred based not on how they are produced, but for how they are processed. Mountainside Farms’ UltraPure milk is conventional milk produced without hormones and screened for antibiotics, then filtered to remove extraneous bacteria common to all milk.

No one says those bacteria are bad, just that they aren’t in UltraPure. Cyrus Schwartz, the company’s president, says consumers like the idea of purity, but (aside from a longer shelf life) can’t explain why purified milk is any better (it costs more than conventional, less than organic).

He assured me the point isn’t to market UltraPure as ‘‘organic light.’’ Somebody should tell his PR people, who blitzed me with e-mails and phone calls telling me the product will ‘‘bridge the gap between conventional and organic.’’

I want my California standards back. I’ll grapple with that confusion over all this any day.

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