What Does the “Organic” Label Really Mean?

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Are you clear on what the term “organic” actually means? It’s a confusing topic for many health-conscious consumers─especially with the many changes associated with this term in recent years. This update can help clarify matters:

As you may know, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program strictly regulating how these foods are grown, handled and processed. Any farmer or food manufacturer who labels and sells a product as organic must meet these government standards to be USDA certified. Only producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods are exempt from this certification.

Organic farmers are required to adhere to specific soil and water conservation methods, as well as rules concerning the humane treatment of animals. And very importantly, USDA certified organic foods are produced without antibiotics, hormones, synthetic pesticides, irradiation, or bioengineering─regardless of whether they’re produced in the United States or imported.

While small farmers with less than $5,000/year in organic sales are exempt from the certification process, they must nonetheless be accurate in their label claims, complying with the new government standards. The USDA is using private and state agencies to inspect and certify companies marketing organic foods to ensure all standards are met. Any individual or company that sells or labels a product as organic when it clearly fails to meet USDA standards can be fined up to $10,000 for each violation.

The timing on all this is ideal, given that the organic market is growing to the tune of billions annually. The new regulations are expected to empower the organic industry as consumers become more confident in the labeling─especially as larger corporations enter the organic foods market. To further clarify, if a food bears a USDA Organic label, it means that it is produced and processed according to the USDA standards, with at least 95% of the ingredients being organically produced.

Products that are completely organic—such as fruits, vegetables, eggs or other single-ingredient foods—are labeled 100% organic, and can feature the USDA seal. Foods with multiple ingredients, like breakfast cereals, can use the USDA organic seal—or the following wording on their package labels—depending on the ratio of organic ingredients. For example:

  • 100% organic: These are products that are completely organic, or made of all organic ingredients.
  • Organic: this refers to products that are at least 95% organic.
  • Made with organic ingredients: Products with this claim contain at least 70% organic ingredients. While they may be superior to conventional options, they cannot feature the organic seal.
  • Foods containing less than 70% organic ingredients can use neither the organic seal nor the word “organic” on their product label. They can, however, refer to organic items in their ingredient list. As for products labeled “all-natural,” “free-range” or “hormone-free,” take them on their own merits, but they should not be assumed to be organic. Again, only those foods that are grown and processed according to USDA organic standards can be labeled organic.

    This should help set the record straight, and give health/environmentally-conscious families a greater impetus to make organic foods a major priority for 2012—and beyond!

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    3 Comments for “What Does the “Organic” Label Really Mean?”

    • LisaNo Gravatar

      Where does GMO fit in? Does “organic” or “100% organic” mean we can be sure of NO GMO ingredients in the product??

    • adminNo Gravatar

      Hi Lisa, we’ve posted a blog addressing this issue here – When Does Organic Mean GMO Free?

    • Nikki J.No Gravatar

      One thing is misleading in this article.
      ” USDA certified organic foods are produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, irradiation, or bioengineering…”
      Organic foods are not pesticide-free, but they are produced without synthetic pesticides, using “organic” pesticides instead. Whether or not these pesticides are a greener choice is contested. I do look for organic foods when I shop, but I often prefer to buy local products at farms and farmers’ market, whether or not they claim to be organic.

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