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New rules keep organic, nonorganic food separate

Finding organic grapes or poultry has gotten easier in grocery stores across the country _ a very intentional byproduct of a new federal requirement that retailers keep organic and nonorganic foods separate.

Many grocers have reorganized parts of their stores, creating barriers and posting new signs to ensure that food represented as organic isn't contaminated with nonorganic compounds.

"The nonorganic honeycrisp apples can't touch the organic red grapefruit," said Dan Johnson, produce coordinator at Seattle's PCC Greenlake store.

The National Organic Program rules, which took effect Oct. 21, prohibit the use of genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge in certified organic production and handling. In general, the use of all synthetic substances is prohibited, along with petroleum-based fertilizers. Animals must be fed organic feed, have access to the outdoors and receive no antibiotics or growth hormones.

And organic food cannot be mixed up with nonorganic varieties in stores.

For many shoppers, this provides a guarantee as to how their food has been produced and handled before they load up their grocery carts.

Organics are a potentially lucrative market, with growth in retail sales topping 20 percent annually since 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

The USDA certifies farmers and food processors as organic, but certification is not an endorsement of any method of food production.

"We're not saying it's healthy or not healthy," said Joan Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the USDA in Washington. "We're just saying it meets certain criteria."

Stores found violating the new rules can face heavy penalties _ up to $10,000 in fines.

Organic products are sold in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and 73 percent of all conventional grocery stores. In 2000, for the first time, more organic food was purchased in conventional supermarkets than any other venue.

"We've been carrying organic products off and on for decades," said Rob Boley, an executive for Fred Meyer in Portland, Ore., which has 132 stores in five Western states and is part of the Cincinnati-based Kroger chain.

"We've seen a big increase in popularity in the last couple of years."

Retailers are generally careful not to play favorites, but some conventional farmers worry that the produce they grow with chemical fertilizers and pesticides will be seen as less healthful, safe or nutritious.

"That's a sore point," said Dick Boushey, a Grandview cherry and grape farmer. "There really is no proof that it's healthier than nonorganic. A carrot is a carrot is a carrot."