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USDA Organic: Behind the Label
Today you'll find many claims of health and environmental benefits displayed on food labels, from “natural” to “free-range" to "organic." While many such terms are not closely regulated yet, foods labeled "organic" — including fruits, vegetables, meats, processed or packaged foods, and dairy — must adhere to a strict set of U.S. government standards.
Sales of organic foods have grown at a rate of nearly 20 percent per year for the past seven years. While organic foods still represent only a fraction of food sales, their growth rate is one trend that led to the National Organic Standards. The standards are intended to define "organic," regulate its use and help prevent confusion among consumers.
The USDA Organic seal tells you that your food was grown, raised, or prepared according to a specific set of standards and practices.
How organic labeling works:
- Products displaying the USDA Organic seal
must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.
- Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic ingredients" and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the front of the package. However, the USDA Organic seal cannot be used anywhere on the package.
- Processed products containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use the term "organic" other than to identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced in the ingredients statement.
Farms and processing operations can also display the USDA Organic seal. To do so, they must be approved by a USDA-accredited certifying agent.
The standards include specific guidelines detailing what qualifies as "organic" — for example, the growing area must be free of synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers and defoliants for at least three growing seasons.
The USDA also has agents in several foreign countries, enabling imported agricultural products to be sold in the United States.
More non-organics to be allowed in "organic ingredients"
In May 2007, the USDA published a set of amendments to the list of nonorganic substances that are permitted to make up no more than 5 percent of a products bearing the USDA Organic seal. This inclusion of 38 “minor ingredients” has generated controversy among consumers, family farmers, and food activists. Many are concerned that the amendments pose a serious threat to the integrity of the National Organic Standards.
Some of the proposed ingredients include food colorings, casings from processed animal intestines, hops, fish oil, lemongrass, rice starch, beet juice, and whey protein concentrate. The final rule, which became effective on June 21, 2007, provides a 60-day period for additional comment on the amendment at the USDA National Organic Program website.
Wendy Rickard is co-founder of Eating Fresh Publications, a group that educates consumers, farms and restaurants about local and organic foods. She is co-editor of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area" and "Cooking Fresh from the Mid-Atlantic."