Insights by Goldie
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Sound Consumer | September 2001

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Whew! There is a backlog of questions I've not responded to — mea culpa, friends, sorry for the delay! I will therefore give brief replies. Anyone who feels a need for more information, contact me.

How can organic claims be made for foreign produce, especially from Mexico?
— Sue Hill
The answer is that they are certified organic, usually by a U.S.-based certifier operating abroad, which includes on-site inspections in the foreign country. Products also may be certified by a foreign certifier. In those cases, Washington State's Department of Agriculture Organic Program has to approve the foreign certifier. Sue also was aghast that "in the heart of apple country" we sell organic apples from anywhere else. I understand her frustration, but PCC highlights Washington-grown produce and has taken pains to encourage local organic growers, although other products are offered for variety.

Is it true that organic produce may be waxed and why?
— Teodora Ghizila and Victor Eskenazi
Each of you express surprise that waxing ever is used on certified organic. Victor, you said I should "wax eloquently" on this. I don't know that this is very eloquent, but here goes: Waxes are, indeed, permitted for use on organic vegetables and fruits, but seldom are. When used, it's to add storage life to a produce item, mainly to block dehydration, to retain texture and presumably nutrients in shipment and storage.

Use of such substances in organic produce merely to enhance appearance ("cosmetic purposes") is not approved. Substances used must be in compliance with the USDA/National Organic Program's "National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances." (Currently it appears to me that only carnauba wax is listed as approved. I thought bee's wax would be, but didn't see it listed.) Sometimes apples, for example, appear to be waxed when in fact it's just their natural sheen. Waxed organic produce must have that information listed on the box — so check with the store staff if you suspect wax and don't want it.

Why are some organic products labeled "not irradiated" and what's the extent of irradiation in foods today?
— Teodora Ghizila
The fact is not very much food is being irradiated (yet). But over the past couple decades, spices and herbs have been fairly commonly irradiated. PCC spice and herb products in bulk and on the shelves are sourced for non-irradiated status and they say so. Fresh produce can be irradiated, as can beef, chicken and pork. But the first generation of such products must be labeled, so therefore very little is being done. Consumers have rejected it. Second generation items (frozen or canned, for instance, in soups or mixes) do not need to be labeled. PCC remains firm: we will not knowingly carry any irradiated foods. In reality, second generation products, unlabeled, are not something we can guarantee. Organic standards strictly forbid irradiation.

What's going on with organic milk being ultra-pasteurized?
— Teodora had a flock of questions!
Yes, Teodora, ultra-pasteurization is now used by two main organic milk producers, Horizon and Organic Valley, on some, but not all of their milk. Basically, it means the milk was flash heated to a somewhat higher temperature than regular pasteurization to extend storage life. I think it changes the flavor and I choose regular pasteurized milk (the Organic Life brand, now on sale) when possible. But ultra-pasteurization is not harmful and should be no less nutritious. Until we have local dairy suppliers, this is a reality.

What are those "natural flavorings" in organic products?
— The use of "natural flavorings" in organics made Teodora curious (or concerned?).
As with the use of waxes, such flavorings are strictly controlled and regulated in the organic program and must meet the specifications of the National List (referred to above). They are obtained from natural foods using methods approved by organic regulators. At some time down the road, we'll do a column on natural flavors and colors. For now, be assured the strictest standards are in place.

Are claims to organic or unsprayed produce at farmers' markets to be trusted?
— Denise Ballard
The local farmers markets (University District, Columbia City, and Wednesday/Sunday events at Pike Place, to name a few) do feature many, many producers who are certified organic and proudly display their certification. The new organic standards at the federal level (not fully in place until next year) require no certification for organic farmers who gross less than $5,000 in annual organic sales and they'll also be permitted for the first time to sell directly to/through retailers without certification. Certified or not, whenever an exempted grower says it's "organic," they must be prepared to back that up with reliable facts if ever challenged by state or federal regulators, which is likely only following a complaint. Denise, your best bet is to get to know the farmers. Shake their hand when you buy something. Thank them. Ask them about their farming concerns and practices! Most are very open and honest.

Are there any simple methods to reduce levels of toxicity in non-organic produce, or in meat, poultry and seafood?
— Ione Turner
Ione and several others have asked whether to use anything beyond water to clean produce. People get creative! Some want to add chlorine bleach, iodine, peroxide, vinegar or lemon juice. Ione wonders about using products sold as washes, some of which promise to reduce pesticide residue, bacteria, and fungus in produce.

I checked several university websites, as well as the governmental food safety advice. The only site I found that even mentioned using produce washes as an alternative to plain water was on the American Dietetic Association website. Then I saw, at the bottom of the article, that the study was funded by Proctor & Gamble, producers of a produce wash (Fit® by P&G.) I have since discovered that product has now been removed from production by P&G, citing very low sales. Another footnote to the "washes" is that any product claiming to be anti-bacterial or to kill pathogens, etc., would have to be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and would need to include language on the container, listing any cautions.

I also looked at the website for Organiclean™, a product which is fairly widely marketed. It does not claim to kill germs or remove bacteria. It also does not offer any studies on why it should be better than water, but absolutely claims to be better. I noticed that ingredients include alpha hydroxy acids, which are used in "facial peels" in cosmetic use. Other ingredients seem to be citrus-based.

One line in particular struck me: "This product complex creates a pleasant, clean fragrance." Funny. I always thought fresh, healthful, organic produce has its very own "pleasant, clean fragrance," but the line suggests that a big part of the appeal of washes is psychological, in that we may feel we're doing something when we use a product.

The consensus remains that what's important is to thoroughly wash your produce, whether organic or chemically grown, including produce that's sold as pre-washed in a package. Use clean, running water. If you soak produce first, which many people do, be aware that if pathogens are present they are still present! Use several briskly agitated rinse waters (i.e., slosh, move, slosh) and finish with running water. Scrub roots and potatoes with a produce brush. Scrub all melons and cucumbers before slicing, so no pathogens transfer to the cut surfaces. Refrigerate cut portions promptly, within two hours.

As for meat, fish or poultry, many people do wash meat and fish when they prepare it. Just use clean water. The key things: wash and rinse hands thoroughly and handle and store all meats so you don't cross contaminate via cutting utensils or boards, nor allow juices to drip on other food items.

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