By Sue Hoye
Special to CNN.Com

(CNN) -- Choosing the perfect place to dine out can be a daunting task, especially if what you have in mind is an organic meal. Eating out organic can be both costly and difficult. Many equate organic with vegetarian, but that is far too limited a definition, according to chef Nora Pouillon, owner of Restaurant Nora in Washington D.C. The well-known establishment with a four-star Mobil rating is the only one in the United States with organic certification.
"I think some people might think it is a vegetarian restaurant," Pouillon says. "You know, misinformation is the biggest thing. People really don't understand what organic means. Many feel that organic means vegetarian food -- tasteless, flavorless food that is not very good. The advantage to this is that everybody is very happily surprised."

So, what does organic mean? Advocates of organic production and processing say organic applies not only to food, but how it is produced. Organic food is grown or raised based on a system of farming that mimics natural ecosystems or at least respects the natural ecosystems, according to John Foster, a former certification director for Oregon Tilth.
In April, 1999 Restaurant Nora received certification from Oregon Tilth, one of the six largest private organic certifiers in the United States. Because it was the first restaurant to apply for certification, Oregon Tilth had the challenge of developing guidelines.

To receive certification, Pouillon had to prove that organic growers and farmers produced 95 percent or more of everything people consumed in her restaurant. In some cases that meant she either had to help her supplier become certified or change to one with existing certification. Certifying Restaurant Nora took two years, in part, Foster explained, because Pouillon was the first to attempt this.

"It would not take that long again. She really deserves a lot of credit for doing this," added Foster.
Pouillon said it was an important step. "I think I wanted to bring more awareness to my customers that I am going the extra mile, that it is not only that the chicken or the tomatoes or the lettuce that is organic, but that everything that they consume in the restaurant is organic. You know, the sugar, the salt, the chocolate, the coffee, the milk, the butter, the flour, the bread, you know, everything."

But organic foods are still very costly compared to conventionally produced foods and finding organic suppliers who sell their products for wholesale is not always easy. For a long time Pouillon had to buy balsamic vinegar in small bottles designed for grocery store consumers. Since she uses about half a gallon a day, it was much more expensive than the non-organic alternative.

There are currently about 50 certifying agents in the United States. The proposed USDA rules will not require retailers or restaurants to be certified, but these businesses can certainly apply for certification, Jones said. According to Foster, Oregon Tilth is working toward certification of several different retailers. There has been some concern about the potential for fraudulent claims by retailers, but Jones points out that anyone making a fraudulent label claim, certified or not, is subject to a $10,000 fine.
"We know retail certification is a big thing with the industry, and that is not to say we won't do it at some point in time, we have just chosen not to do it now," said Jones. Restaurant Nora will still receive certification from Oregon Tilth, but it will be a USDA certification.
For her part, Pouillon is excited about the new rules. "I can't wait until they come out," she told CNN Interactive several weeks ago. "Even if they are not perfect, I think it is about time they come out," she says.