What makes a product organic?
Once upon a time, anyone could declare their food product as organic. Some products were very organic and some weren't. As organic food became more popular, consumers wanted to be sure the food products they purchased were really, truly organic.
In response, state and federal agencies, in combination with private organizations, started to police which products were actually organic. For example, products produced at the School of Agriculture's Allison Organic Research Farm, north of Macomb, are certified organic by the Midwest Organic Services Association, an organization approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to monitor and certify organic food.
This means the purple-and-gold popcorn produced on the Allison farm can be sold as organic popcorn with MOSA certification, backed by USDA, that the popcorn is really organic.
While the Allison farm uses MOSA certification, there are other groups that certify a crop or food as being organic. According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture, there are more than a dozen state departments of agriculture and 51 private organizations accredited by USDA as organic certifiers. Without that certification, the product can't be sold as organic.
I recently purchased a product that was clearly identified as being organic - and, in this case, it had a large label that read, "USDA Organic." While USDA doesn't personally inspect the product, the agency does inspect the private companies who do the certification. That gave me confidence that the product was actually organic. So I bought it.
What caught my attention was the fact that this product was actually imported from Chile. I was surprised to see a USDA label on an imported product since I assumed a USDA label implied a U.S. product. Wrong.
USDA told me: "USDA organic production can occur anywhere in the world and be represented as USDA organic as long as products adhere to the standards."
It appears that the USDA organic label has become a brand, available for anyone in the world to purchase. The moral, for me, is to keep reading labels to know where your food comes from. And don't forget to read the small print on that label.
Dr. William Bailey is chairman of the Department of Agriculture in the College of Business & Technology at Western Illinois University. He can be reached at WC-Bailey@wiu.edu