Label-savvy grocery shoppers know what certifications to keep an eye out for: “Natural” means next to nothing, “vegan” equals “no harm was done in the making of____,” and “grass-fed” is the phrase you *need* slapped on your ground turkey. But “organic” is even less straightforward than previously thought (which, by the way, was not straightforward from the start).
In a recent deep dive into the subtle yet significant distinction between restaurants claiming menu items are “organic” verses “made with organic,” The New York Times made some brow-furrowing discoveries. As it turns out, those two measly syllables leave eateries plenty of wiggle room to combine organic foods with ingredients that simply are anything but. So, let’s say your sandwich is 75 percent organic. A restaurant could theoretically call it “made with organic,” despite its 25 percent that is non-organic. Because of this non-organic percentage, one would think the entire item would add up to a non-organic sandwich, right?
Well, wrong. This whole loophole is a thing thanks to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program, which set forth the label’s standards to include food without synthetic fertilizers or genetic engineering back in 2002. The program also exempted restaurants from having to answer to the same certifying organizations as farmers.
For restaurant owners to call their meat, veggies, and starches “made with organic,” they need only make a “reasonable” effort to use compliant ingredients. But, there’s no definition outlining what constitutes a “reasonable” effort.
For restaurant owners to call their meat, veggies, and starches “made with organic,” they need only make a “reasonable” effort to use compliant ingredients, according to Jennifer Tucker, the deputy administrator of the National Organic Program. But, there are no regulations defining “reasonable” and no agency policing claims of being “reasonable.” Tucker notes this gap in policy is due to the fact that the program was put into effect a time when farming practices and food production were chief concerns. But come on—can we get some stricter requirements now that it’s 2018?!?
Nowadays, a consumer who makes a point of complaining to USDA about a neighborhood joint might successfully get certifying organizations to make a house call or write the owner a warning letter, but your best bet is sourcing your takeout or brunch dates from restaurants that voluntarily go through the organic certification process despite not being expressly required to do so. Sure, it’s an extra step to take before dining out, but isn’t that order of non-genetically modified avocado toast worth it?
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