Why Not to Buy Organic

With the organic craze going on today in America, you might think it odd that I write an article on why not to buy organic, especially on a health food web site. Let me explain.

It is a noble cause to seek out and consume foods that have been grown in a natural and chemical-free environment, as well as eating meat that is hormone-free way and raised humanely. However, what began as a way to facilitate terminology for such standards, a break-away if you will from the food industry, has been hijacked by government regulative powers. Now, instead of the farmer and consumer determining what is clean food, the government is using the “organic” sticker to dictate a minimum acceptable standard for raising food. For large agri-business producers, this means $$ and not much more! Let’s take a look at some of the vocabulary, taken from the USDA website, that will illustrate what I mean:

Free Range
Free Roaming
No Hormones
No Antibiotics

Most of the large companies (six in total that dominate all the products that line the supermarket shelves) have begun to offer one or more products which now sport these various government labels. With the higher prices being commanded by organic foods today, larger companies are flocking to the opportunity to get in on the action. They simply have their staff lawyers research all the rules to get “certified.” They are then able to produce products, side by side to the non-organic ones, using similar production models.

Let me give you an example. On the USDA website, one is told that in order for chicken to be termed Free Range, “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” That’s it. So, if you put yourself in the large mega-corporation’s shoes, now you can increase the cost of your chicken by at least $0.30 a pound, and all you have to do is give your chickens “access to the outside”. It doesn’t mean they have to go there. It doesn’t mean they have ever been there. They just have to have access to it. And if they do end up getting out of their cell, nothing says the outside has to be lush green pasture like most consumers imagine. It can simply be a 2′ x 2′ patch of bare dirt. That is government certified free range. Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma delineates a much broader picture of these abuses. Purchase the book and walk with him through the aisles of large markets, such as “Whole Foods”, and then go with him back to the “farms” where his food was produced. As they say, “Marketing is everything!”

So, what to do? Well, if you shop for these organic, certified, free range foods in the grocery store, take a close look. See what company makes the food. If the same company has their organic and non-organic lines right next to each other, you can probably bet they have done the bare minimum to slap that label on there. If they truly cared about producing high quality food, they wouldn’t even have the non-organic line. I’ve seen that all the time with ketchup, pickles, flour, olives, eggs, etc. The ones with the organic labels will probably not be any worse than the non-organic version right next to them, but they may not be any better, either. I can tell you this, though…they will definitely be more expensive.

Another great example. I went to the store to buy some milk while on vacation. I found some organic milk on sale (still more than the normal stuff) and bought it. Then I kicked myself when I read the label more closely. The organic stuff was ultra-high-temperature (UHT) pasteurized, thus rendering it deader than dead. I had purchased certified organic dead milk. When I went back later that week, the regular milk, though not organic, was at least only pasteurized, thus was actually a better option. (Though both were far inferior to fresh raw milk). So, just because it says organic, doesn’t mean its good.

So, my advice would be to look for labels from some smaller companies, even if they aren’t organic. Pick ones with only a couple of ingredients you can actually pronounce. I was pleasantly surprised to find a non-organic peanut butter in our grocery store that had two ingredients: peanuts and salt. The non-salted variety only had one ingredient. If your only options are a big company’s organic and non-organic varieties, pick what your wallet can afford. Just realize you may not be getting anything better by paying more.

And, of course, the best option is to raise your own food, or buy from a local farmer that you know personally. You can go visit his/her operation and see how things are running there. I would opt for a non-organic farmer before an organic one, assuming they are doing things the same way, simply because the organic farmer has to waste so much time and money to get his products government certified. There are quite a few farmers popping up that will have this same philosophy. Ask him if his family eats it. If they have a passion about raising good food, they will probably be up front about why they did (or did not) refrain from taking on the organic label. And that’s good. If they’re only using the government handbook to determine what is good, then you probably want to steer clear.

To find out more on this, I highly recommend the entire book line from Joel Salatin, but specifically, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal. He’s thumbed his nose at the organic labels and just raised good food. He’d rather use locally produced grains for his chickens, even if they aren’t organic, than truck in organic grain from hundreds of miles away. But his chickens are happy, they taste good, and they’re good for you.

Happy shopping and eating!

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