WASHINGTON -- Nora Pouillon was called a hippy in the 1970s for buying only organic fruits, vegetables and meats for her family. People scoffed when she went so far as to serve organic-only meals at her Washington restaurant and advertised it on the menu.
"I had written on the back of my menus that the animals were raised in a stress-free environment," said Pouillon, the chef and owner of the organic-certified Restaurant Nora. "People were making fun of me."
Pouillon does not feel alone anymore as an organic shopper, and sales of organic food prove it. They have increased steadily, from $3.5 billion in 1996, to $4 billion in 1999. The Agriculture Department has taken notice, writing labeling rules for farmers and companies wanting to market their products as organic.
The agency also began marking some of those foods with a seal of approval.
The seal means the food was grown by a certified farmer who does not use conventional pesticides and fertilizers, biotechnology, antibiotics or growth hormones to produce food.
Products entirely organic will be labeled "100 percent organic" while those that are at least 95 percent will carry just "organic." The seal can be displayed on those products.
Foods that are 70 percent organic or less will be marked as "made with organic ingredients" or "contains organic ingredients." Those cannot carry the department's green seal.
The government is not saying organic foods are safer or healthier. That claim is made by organic supporters, who also believe that buying organic food sends a political message in support of environmentally safe farming.
"I believe that on a political level, consumers can go into the store and vote with their food dollars," said Kelly Shea, a production director at the California dairy and meat company, Horizon Organic. "Both producers and the consumers can have a hand in contributing to better soil quality, better water quality and promoting the humane treatment of animals."
By writing the standards, the Agriculture Department has legitimized an alternative to traditional farming methods, Shea said.
But not everyone likes the guidelines.
Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in California said some people believe the rules are too strong, while others wanted even tougher ones.
Scowcroft cited one dispute in which some people wanted the Agriculture Department to require companies and farmers to test for traces of genetically modified foods, created when a plant is engineered to contain genes from other species.
"The rule says you can't have any (trace). It doesn't say if you're supposed to test for it, and it doesn't say what you should do if you find it," he said.
In another disagreement, conventional egg farmers have argued that organic chickens should be kept in pens because they will contract diseases such as salmonella if they are raised outdoors.
Scowcroft said such issues can be resolved over time and the standards can be amended.
Consumers, in the meantime, will notice the label on foods sold in grocery stores and gas stations, he said. "I think they'll see it in places that they never would have thought of."
Organic foods will not always seem expensive, Scowcroft said, predicting that the price will drop as the products gain popularity.
The rules make the term organic seem more consistent, said Urvashi Rangan of the Consumers Union in New York.
"It's sort of a brand new start for something that's been in practice for a very long time," she said.
The new rules will not directly affect Poullion's organic-certified restaurant. But she predicts business will benefit her because consumers' attention will be drawn to organic products.
On the Net:
Agriculture Department: http://www.usda.gov
Organic Farming Research Foundation: http://www.ofrf.org
Consumers Union: http://www.consumersunion.org
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