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As 'organic' goes mainstream, will standards suffer?

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The report also recommended buying organic baby food, meat, eggs, and dairy, but questioned the wisdom of paying more for processed organic foods like cereal or bread, which have limited nutrient value and aren't always fully organic.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued standards for organic products in 2000, although some critics question how strictly they're applied. But the market for organic food is anything but simple. Many organic producers never bother to go through the process of becoming certified, while other producers use labels such as "free-range" or "natural" that conjure up bucolic images but may mean very little.

"People use certain terms loosely, and consumers are fooled," says Joe DePippo, president of FreeBird, which produces antibiotic-free organic chicken raised on small family farms. "Consumers associate free-range with organic, and rightfully so, but there's some market for free-range that's not organic. And to just think that you can have chickens running free all over the field - it's just not practical."

Regina Beidler and her husband, Brent, who run a 145-acre dairy farm in Vermont, take the necessary steps so that their goods receive the organic label. A visit to the Beidler's farm found their 40-cow herd grazing contentedly in the rain on a hill overlooking the White River Valley. At about 4 p.m. every day, as well as at 4 a.m., the cows take turns at the milking stations in the cedar-shingled barn, where they munch on organic grain and hay.

"Integrity is something that ... we all realize is important to maintaining consumer confidence," says Ms. Beidler, who says some of their practices go beyond USDA requirements. "I always say there's an implicit partnership between farmers who produce organic and consumers who buy it."

But recent controversies have highlighted doubts about whether everyone lives up to that standard. A report released last month by the Cornucopia Institute, which supports family-scale farming, rated organic dairy producers on their practices. While it found that the majority followed good practices, the group was highly critical of two of the nation's largest producers: Horizon Organic, a subsidiary of Dean Foods, and Aurora Organic, which supplies private-label milk to many supermarkets. Both producers, the report said, buy much of their milk from large-scale feedlots where the cows have little or no access to pasture.

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