Insights by Goldie
ask Goldie!

Sound Consumer | March 2001

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Q: Audrey Karabinus asks, "What do you mean by flash-frozen produce? (January Sound Consumer)"

A: The term refers to commercial freezing of fish, meat, fruit or vegetable, done so rapidly that flavor and nutrients are "locked in." If frozen properly, the food should be free of ice crystals and have excellent flavor and texture. Freezing fresh produce can reward us for many months after. If you garden or freeze large amounts of fruits or veggies, it also can save considerable money.

Audrey also asks if "blanching" vegetables before freezing is really necessary. The answer is yes, definitely. Blanching, which means immersing the vegetables briefly in boiling water before freezing, results in better texture, flavor and nutrient retention.

Hot weather produce has a higher water content and is quite fragile; nutrients are lost in shipping, storage and store display. I recommend that we eat seasonally — more roots, tubers, winter squashes and hardy greens during cold months. When we want to include delicate items such as sweet corn, zucchini, green peas and green beans, then frozen — either commercial or home-frozen — usually is a better nutritional bargain in the winter.

organic news and views

National standards meet state regulations
by Goldie Caughlan, Consumer Representative, National Organic Standards Board

Now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has adopted national organic standards, what happens next? The first task — and it's a big one — is to process applications by currently established organic certification groups who seek approval as agents of the USDA/National Organic Program (NOP). Around the country, there exists both private certification companies and other models. Hopefully, USDA will accredit most.

Among the dozens of these certifying groups is Washington state. We've had an organic statute on the books for 13 years, primarily due to the vision of back-to-the land farmers. PCC also was instrumental from the beginning; Representative (now Senator) Ken Jacobson, serving as a member of the PCC Board of Trustees carried the ball (or maybe it was the hoe!) and guided our state's organic future through the legislative process.

Not many states have organic statutes, and even in some that do, no certification program was established to implement the statutes. In Washington, however, our Department of Agriculture (WSDA) is mandated to implement and oversee an organic certification program. It's a user-fee-based program, meaning that those who are certified organic by WSDA are paying their own way. Other certifying agencies also continue to operate here, actually competing with the state for certification revenue.

The WSDA Secretary appoints an Organic Advisory Board, which consists of farmers, manufacturers, retailers, consumers and other representatives from around the state. I was a consumer representative for seven years. Legally, board input is only advisory, yet the board has played a critical role in developing standards and board members have provided much of the knowledge base. Board recommendations become legal standards only through the legislative process. State organic regulations are found in Chapter 16, Washington Administrative Code (WAC). They can be accessed on the web at www.wa.gov/agr/fsah/organic.

I spoke recently with Miles McEvoy, the Organic Program Manager for the WSDA. Here are excerpts from our discussion:

GC: Do you have any concerns about Washington State receiving USDA accreditation?
MM: It'll take time and effort, but we have no concerns that we'll be accredited.

GC: Do you have any concerns with the proposed national standards?
MM: We view it as unfortunate that USDA will not require many classes of handlers to be certified. Currently, Washington requires certification of produce handlers and grocery distributorships. Produce is particularly troublesome because we believe there are numerous opportunities for cross-contamination in mixed operations (organic and commercial). We had asked the National Standards Organic Board (NOSB) and USDA/NOP not to exempt them from certification, but they did.

The national standards restrict the use of raw manure to 120 days before harvest for many crops (WSDA restricts it to 60 days). This could adversely affect small vegetable growers, especially in western Washington. The national standards require organic seeds "unless not commercially available." While well intentioned, finding sufficient seed stock will be a challenge. Large growers might be exempt because of the large quantities they'd need, but smaller growers might be ineligible for the exemption because they'd need so little. Organic seeds might cost a premium and every economic disadvantage to a small grower is significant.
Organic farmers may lose several pest-management materials currently allowed, because some of the inert ingredients may not be approved. Products may need time to reformulate, where possible. The livestock standards will be somewhat more restrictive than we currently have, but hopefully our producers will be able to comply.
In our state, we've recognized "transitional to organic" labeling in the second and third year after entering into certification. Now this is gone.
We're also somewhat concerned that retailers will be allowed to sell and label as organic, produce or other products from small producers who are specifically exempted from certification (e.g., producing less than $5,000 worth of organic product annually).

We closed our conversation, agreeing that it's important to keep "raising the bar" on the standards as we go. I know that raising my end of that bar is on my agenda as I begin next month serving as a consumer representative on the NOSB! After all, the fewer toxins being dumped onto our lands and in our waters (and into our bodies), the better off we all are.

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