Sorting Through the Food Confusion
Posted: April 19, 2011
Spring is here and the bounty of Adams County’s agricultural economy will soon come into view for savvy and not-so-savvy consumers. This is also the time of year that terms like ‘local’, ‘organic’, ‘natural’, ‘pesticide-free’, ‘sustainable’ etc… get thrown around with reckless abandon. For example, I recently came across a local event featuring “chemically and preservative free, all natural food”. Preservative free food? Maybe. Chemical free food? Not a chance. This is just one example of how the careless use of terms to describe food has contributed to mass confusion and miseducation about our agricultural system on a local and national scale. The reality is that there is no such thing as chemical-free food. A basic definition for the word “chemistry” is the study of matter. Chemicals are simply the building blocks of matter; they are neither inherently good nor bad. However, in recent press, the word “chemical” has almost become synonymous with toxin or poison. Dr. Joseph Schwarcz from McGill University illustrated this point along with others in much greater detail in his keynote presentation titled “Eating-Is there a solution to the Confusion?” at the 2011 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention. Dr. Schwarcz discussed how the desire by companies to capitalize on health fads and the growing trend on behalf of consumers to learn more about the food they’re eating has actually led to greater public confusion.
Major players in the food industry add to this misunderstanding by making claims on product labels with little or no meaning. For example, the word “natural” as seen on a food label means absolutely nothing. In fact “natural” could mean that it’s packed with preservatives or its preservative free, grown two miles down the road or grown 1,000 miles away. This is because the government does not regulate the word “natural” across all food packaging. There is, however, an official definition and certification process carried out by the USDA in order for a product to be labeled “organic”. In fact, there are a few different levels of certification. A product labeled ‘100 percent Organic' must contain only organic ingredients approved by the USDA. Products labeled 'Organic' means that at least 95% of its ingredients were produced organically. The 'Made with Organic' label is used for processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Confused yet? Additionally, it seems like many consumers believe if something is organic that it is produced without the use of pesticides; this is false. The Organic Materials Review Institute’s website (omri.org) lists hundreds of pesticides and fertilizers that are approved for use on organic products including copper sulfate, calcium chloride, sulfur, and, of course, manure.
Another term that seems to be on the tips of everybody’s tongues these days is ‘local’. This term is completely relative to the individual. To me, local may mean within a 50 mile radius, to my friend it might mean within a 100 mile radius or within the state. To illustrate how preposterous this term can really be, I recently heard a story from a local fruit grower who got rejected from a farmers’ market in Maryland simply because his truck had a PA license plate. He lives less than 50 miles away from the market location, yet because he isn’t a Maryland producer, he got the boot. Meanwhile, the farmer who lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, crosses the Chesapeake Bay, and drives over 100 miles to the market has somehow been deemed more ‘local’.
I hope this column didn’t come off as a bitter rant on our food knowledge and vocabulary as a nation because, like most people, I am very excited for the start of farmers’ market season. I encourage everyone to take the time to educate themselves about our food system and the terms that we attach to its products.
Jim Remcheck is the Penn State Agricultural Economic Development/Marketing Extension Educator serving Adams County. Penn State is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity, and the diversity of its workforce. Penn State Extension in Adams County is located at 670 Old Harrisburg Road, Suite 204, Gettysburg, PA 17325, phone (717) 334-6271 or 1-888-472-0261, email AdamsExt@psu.edu.