A new poll finds the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposed rules for labeling organic food products will seriously mislead consumers into thinking the products are safer, better in quality or more nutritious.

The survey, conducted by International Communications Research of Media, PA on behalf of the National Center for Public Policy Research, found two-thirds of the public would be misled by the proposed USDA seal on several key issues:

68 percent said they would interpret a product labeled “USDA Certified Organic” to be safer to eat than non-organic foods;
67 percent believed “USDA Certified Organic” to be better than non-organic foods; and,
62 percent believe “USDA Certified Organic” to be healthier for consumers than non-organic foods.
“Neither organic nor conventional producers are served by misleading the public over such important issues of food safety and nutrition,” said John Carlisle, director of the Environmental Policy Task Force at the National Center for Public Policy Research. “A level playing field for organic growers can only exist if consumers are informed about the real benefits and risks of purchasing organically certified products.”

According to both the USDA and the leadership of the $6 billion organic industry, organic certification is only an accreditation of production methods used by farmers and not an assurance of food safety, quality, nutrition or health. USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, in announcing the proposed rules, stated that the USDA organic certification does not mean food labeled organic is “superior, safer or more healthy than conventional food.” In a recent interview on ABC News’ 20/20, Organic Trade Association director Katherine DiMatteo reiterated that organic products are not safer or more nutritious than other foods, noting, “Organic agriculture is not particularly a food safety claim. That’s not what our standards are about.”

The proposed USDA rules, developed in response to the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, are to help consumers distinguish products grown using national standards for organic production methods. Today, no national standards exist, and, according to the Organic Trade Association, as much as 50 percent of all foods sold as organic lack any certification on which consumers can rely to inform their purchase choice.

In other findings, this national consumer poll found seven out of ten (69 percent) said the USDA label would imply these products are better for the environment and four out of ten (43 percent) believe these would be more nutritious. In fact, the label provided no information on either of these qualities.

“Consumers pay significant premiums, sometimes as much as 200 percent, for these products based on misperceptions that will be heightened by this USDA proposed label,” noted Carlisle. “Clearly, consumers want the USDA to amend this rule to include specific language on the USDA proposed seal to inform consumers that organic certification is based on production methods and conveys no assurance of food safety, nutrition or other quality.”

The Environmental Policy Task Force is a project of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a non-partisan, non-profit education foundation. To obtain a copy of the poll or to interview scientific experts, contact John Carlisle at The National Center for Public Policy Research at 202-371-1400, ext. 107, or Jcarlisle@nationalcenter.org.