Bite Me

What's a word worth these days? Pick a good one like "organic" and you could be talking billions and billions of dollars.

On Monday, October 21, the National Organic Standards and Labels program went into effect, ending over a decade of wrangling in Washington, D.C. The program guarantees that all foods wearing that spiffy new green-and-white "USDA Organic" label were grown by an independently certified farmer who did not use conventional chemical fertilizers, biotechnological processes, hormones or antibiotics, irradiation or any sewage sludge to produce his food -- and, if the food is processed, the manufacturer used only products that met the above standards during the creation and packaging of the item. Furthermore, products that are entirely organic will be labeled "100% organic," while those that contain just a little sewage sludge, pesticide or bovine growth hormone (but are still 95 percent wholesome) will carry only the word "organic." Products that contain 70 percent or less organic material can be marked "made with organic ingredients" but may not carry the USDA's seal.

To put it in simple terms, this means that those shiny red (and officially labeled) apples you just picked up at the market won't be covered in malathion or Dacthal residue, the plum tomatoes in your salad weren't grown in a bath of untreated shit, and little Billy probably won't grow a set of Anna Nicole-sized knockers on his back from drinking milk from cows treated with huge doses of growth hormones.

But defining that one little word -- "organic" -- took almost ten years, beginning in 1990 with the passage of Senator Patrick Leahy's farm bill, which included a directive to the USDA to begin writing a national organic standard. The word's power -- and its value as a marketing tool in the $450 billion-a-year home-food industry -- lies in its presumed meaning to consumers. In a survey conducted in May 2000 by International Communications Research, 62 percent of the 1,029 adults polled felt that foods labeled "organic" were more healthy than foods without the label; 68 percent felt that foods with the seal would be safer than those without; and almost half felt that foods carrying the USDA organic label would be more nutritious than those without.

Frankly, none of this is true. Nowhere in the thousands of pages of government documents defining the word "organic" does it say that the food bearing the new label must be in any way safer, better-tasting, healthier or more nutritious. "Organic" is not a value judgment and is no longer descriptive in anything but a legal sense. Nowhere does it say that the organic peach you just bit into was grown by some happy little hippie with a small orchard in his back yard. Nowhere does it say that the cow from which your New York strip was cut once roamed around a sunlit pasture, blissfully living out its cowish existence until it keeled over from natural causes and was turned into steaks.

No, all it says is that farmer Frank can't shoot Bessie up with 10,000 milligrams of amoxicillin and bovine growth hormone or feed her genetically modified grain mixed with high-protein slurry from the processing plant. No one's stopping farmer Frank from using confinement pens; no one's making sure his cows are treated humanely. Hell, he could use a power drill to kill his cattle if he wanted. As long as there are no chemicals, no GM products and no drugs in the animal's bloodstream, farmer Frank gets the label.

Remember, these new rules were not enacted by the USDA to ensure that Americans have a healthier, safer or more politically correct alternative to the giant agri-corporations. They were enacted to stop the giant agri-corporations from using the word without it meaning something. And now, it means only what it means -- and it doesn't signify that anything labeled "organic" is necessarily better for you, the animals, the plants, or the earth.

Just something to think about.Ask Mr. Food Man: Not long ago, I received this letter from a desperate reader named Julia:

"I was wondering if you could settle an ongoing debate between my husband and I. We live in the South Federal area and are surrounded by many authentic Mexican restaurants. While I suspect such a thing is American, many of the Mexican restaurants say they have 'real' fried ice cream -- but to my deep and bitter disappointment, I always receive a plate of white ice cream covered in honey and breakfast cereal. Yuck. My husband thinks there is no such a thing as real deep-fried ice cream, but somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I recall the best ice cream experience ever, with a steaming hot shell of fried crispiness covering a cold, quickly melting ball of vanilla ice cream covered in hot chocolate sauce, cinnamon and honey. Please, please, please! Tell me there is such a thing and where I can get it now! I am nine months pregnant, and if there is a God, then there is such a thing, and you are going to tell me where and how and end my craving-laden search."