What Does "Organic" Mean?

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic foods have become a $20 billion industry. And a quick scan of the grocery store aisles seems to confirm that. But the more people buy into it, the bigger the question becomes: What exactly does “organic” mean?

© Erich Schlegel/Corbis

What’s in a Name?

You’ve probably noticed by now that organic products tend to be pricey. That’s partially because federal certification costs money, and partially because the right to use the word “organic” requires meeting the USDA standards that were set in 2002. Even imported foods have to be up to government snuff before they can be called organic.

The USDA rules are pretty stringent. To be certified as organic, farmers can’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones for three full years before applying. Further, any animals they have must be raised on organic foods. Genetically modified crops are a no-no, as are farming practices that cause high levels of pollution. Even the shipping and processing procedures are monitored. Organic foods have to be kept separate from non-organics until they arrive in the grocery store.

It’s up to the non-governmental agencies that are certified by the USDA to determine whether or not a product gets to use the organic label. They monitor every step of the system, and in the end, they’re the ones who slap that big “O” on the finished product.

Although the USDA criteria cover a lot of ground, many people feel the “organic” label should mean more. For example, some say it should cover how humanely the animals are treated. While many organic farmers treat their animals well as a matter of principle, the USDA’s stance on the matter is flimsy. All they require is for animals to have access to the outdoors—a rule that is not strictly enforced. One farm got away with just putting unlocked (but closed) flaps on their chicken coops. While the chickens technically had access, they were never taught how to open the doors.

Organic farms also don’t have to be owned by mom and pop. Large-scale, corporate organic farms are now common. While critics complain that these big farms betray organic ideals by using monoculture practices that deplete the soil, the fact is that multinational conglomerates have quietly bought out many organic food suppliers.

War of the Words

During the past few years, concerns about the USDA’s organic label have intensified. In August 2008, the organization announced that 15 organic monitoring agencies weren’t implementing USDA standards and threatened to close them down if changes weren’t made within the year. While this could be seen as the system catching problems, groups such as the Organic Consumers Union said the announcement proves that subpar food has been sneaking by inspectors.

The fact that non-organic foods have been allowed to slip under the organic label has also frustrated groups. Until 2007, it was permissible for only five predetermined non-organic ingredients to appear in certified organic products, and even then, they could only make up 5 percent of the total ingredients. Dozens of non-organic ingredients have been given a pass, including 19 food colorings, pig-intestine sausage casings, and hops. This has pushed some hardcore organic lovers over the edge. Tired of fighting for control of the label they created, some want to replace “organic” with new terms, such as “authentic food” and “conservation agriculture.”

Feeding the Children

These days, there’s another debate raging around organic foods. Although they may benefit first-world, health-conscious consumers, critics say organic foods don’t help the rest of the planet. Agronomist Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for introducing life-saving farming techniques to poor countries, doubts that organics can feed the world. He maintains that the problem is output. A 2002 study published in Science found that while organic farms use 50 percent less fertilizer and 97 percent fewer pesticides than conventional farms, they produce 20 percent less food. Borlaug believes that if the entire world switched to organic farming, we’d need three times as much farmland to feed everyone.

But organic supporters say this is bogus. The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture points out that hunger is more about poverty and access to food, problems that have nothing to do with pesticides and artificial fertilizer. What’s more, the data on output isn’t cut and dry. In 2000, after reviewing multiple studies that compared organic and conventional farms, Christos Vasilikiotis of UC Berkeley found that organic farms kept up with their chemically dependent brothers, so long as they were run efficiently.

Right now, only one thing is certain about the future of the organic-food industry: As long as there’s organic food being processed, there will be arguments about how best to label it.

Checking the Labels

Need a dictionary to understand the labels on your food? Well, it won’t help. The hair-splitting semantics of the food industry could dumbfound the best of linguists. Lucky for you, we’ve broken it down right here.

LABEL: “100% Organic,” featuring the classy USDA seal
WHAT’S INSIDE? Nothing but USDA-certified organic ingredients.

LABEL: “Organic,” with the USDA seal
WHAT’S INSIDE? Food made with at least 95 percent USDA organic ingredients.

LABEL: “Made with organic _______,” without the USDA seal
WHAT’S INSIDE? Food made with at least 70 percent USDA organic ingredients.

LABEL: “All-Natural” or “Natural”
WHAT’S INSIDE? That depends. By USDA standards, “natural” meat can’t contain artificial flavoring, coloring, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients, but the animals can be raised with hormones and antibiotics. Other foods with the “natural” label? That’s tougher. It’s supposed to mean there are no synthetic or artificial ingredients, but nobody officially monitors the process.

LABEL: “No Chemicals Added”
WHAT’S INSIDE? Nobody knows.

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10 Facts About Aspirin
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Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

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How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.

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