2002-12-07 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

Notes On Consumer Affairs

While shopping for your groceries, have you ever wondered what the difference was between regular produce and organic produce? While people always assumed organic produce was grown in a more natural manner than regular produce, there was never any federal or state standard specifying how to classify a product as "organic". Therefore, there may not have been a meaningful difference in the way the produce was grown. To address the quality content of organic foods, the federal government implemented a labeling system.

Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture issued standards for the labeling of organic foods. This development is significant as many consumers have expressed the desire to be able to know how their food was grown and more importantly the right to choose which foods to buy for themselves and their families. In addition, because the labeling is a federal initiative, labeling will be consistent on products in every state across the nation.

Organic food has been around since the 1940's but has noticeably grown in the marketplace in the 1990's. According to the USDA organic foods must be produced without certain pesticides, fertilizers, radiation or genetic engineering. Under the newly issued standards, organic farmers will be required to conserve soil and water to enhance environmental quality and treat animals humanely. All organic produce must be certified. In addition, retailers or producers who attempt to sell or label a product as organic when it does not meet the USDA standards can be fined up to $10,000 per violation.

There are four levels of organic purity issued by the USDA:

100 percent organic. This category requires that all products are 100% certified organic and may used the USDA Organic Seal. This category will typically be used on one ingredient foods such as fruits.

Organic. This category indicates that a product is at least 95% organic. This category can use the USDA seal.

Made with Organic Ingredients. Products which are 70-95% organic can indicate that on the label but can not use the USDA Organic Seal.

Some Organic Ingredients. Products with less than 70% organically produced ingredients can not use the USDA seal and can not use the word "organic" on the front of the package. Products may identify each organically produced ingredient with the word organic in the ingredient statement; it must also display the product's percentage or organic contents on the information panel.

The USDA standards for organic labeling are a significant step in improving the consumer's right to know. Over the last few years, the Assembly Committees on Consumer Affairs and Protection and Agriculture have been working closely on the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO's). In 2000, the Committees held four joint hearings across the state in Rochester, Ithaca, Albany and Queens. These hearings allowed the Committees to obtain information from farmers, manufacturers, researchers and consumers on their concerns over the use of GMO's in New York State.

One significant issue raised by the hearings was that if New York State regulates GMO's via labeling, would the state be at an economic disadvantage to surrounding states? Furthermore, what would the significance of a "GMO-free" label be? These questions highlight the complications of regulating products in one state when the issue may be more properly addressed at the federal level. For example, with the new Organic Standards set by the USDA, consumers are ensured a consistent product wherever they go. This method should prove to be more effective than state by state initiatives.

While an issue may be more properly addressed at the federal level, we still have an obligation to address the issue in the absence of federal involvement. In this regard, the Assembly Committee on Consumer Affairs and Protection reported a bill which would establish a voluntary labeling system through the Department of Agriculture and Markets. This voluntary labeling system would enable producers and manufacturers who want to sell food as "GMO-free" an avenue to do so. In addition, the Assembly passed a resolution calling on the federal government to act on the GMO issue.

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