Hey Umbra,

What with organic foods being so expensive, I’m often tempted to buy the store-brand organic produce that’s cropping up lately. Are the store brands as good (i.e., pesticide free) as any other brand of organic food? I can’t help but be suspicious.

Confused in Jersey

Dear CJ,

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Organic is a USDA-certified labeling program. Historically, organically grown food represented an alternative to large-scale, mass-produced, polluting agricultural techniques. Organic was and, to some extent, still is a social and ecological movement; today it is also a major branding tool. And since organically certified fresh and processed foods have been a huge growth area in the food sector, some supermarkets have logically decided to jump into the game with in-house brands — also known as “private labels.”

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Do generics have a place in your green basket?

Any producer of an item bearing the official “USDA organic” logo [PDF] has met federal organic guidelines, kept detailed records, and been inspected by one of the many USDA-approved certifying agencies. (The exceptions are those who are lying or cheating and have not yet been caught.) The item must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients to earn that logo. Organic brands, private label or not, are all the same in the eyes of the USDA. By the way, organic producers may use pesticides, but only those allowed under the organic guidelines.

Private labels give the grocer a higher profit margin — 8 to 10 percent, according to one source — while offering copycat products at lower prices to consumers. Whether these products are good as the others in your eyes is up to you. As I said, they are technically meeting the organic guidelines. To me, however, they represent the further consolidation of the food industry, away from a diversity of purveyors and to the detriment of farmers, who certainly do not get any more of your food dollar. Additionally, any farmer large enough to supply a grocer’s private label — or even the organic versions of mainstream products like Oreos and Raisin Bran — is farming at a very large scale indeed, and though large-scale organic is better than large-scale conventional, it’s not exactly what I’m looking for in terms of freshness, purveyor diversity, and workers’ rights.

You might also find claims on independent brands (family-grown, fueled by wind power, invented for our adorable son, etc.), claims that store brands cannot make. These are typically unsubstantiatable, but may carry more weight with you.

So where does that get us? The brands are all at the same level of organic-ness, and there is no reason to suspect otherwise. Whether the other issues I’ve raised are worth the extra cash, I leave up to you. We at least should celebrate the further mainstreaming of organic agriculture, which, no matter what size the farm or how bland the label, is a great improvement over the status quo.