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."

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Everett's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 50 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 09/27/2006

This is good, IMHO. The US Government is far from perfect when it comes to regulating these things (The miserable failure of the EPA to do so is an example) but we need to centralize the certification process and put it in the hands of a non-profit entity, whether that be government or an non-profit NGO. If companies out there making a profit from "certifying" things as organic, we need to ask ourselves who their allegiance will go to. After all, their "customers" are the food companies, not the consumers. And if you want to make your customer happy, you make their life easy... by being relaxed on your regulations.

m38967's picture
User offline. Last seen 9 years 2 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 08/10/2007

I just went shopping at my local grocer, and noticed on the shelf a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese labeled as "ORGANIC". It had the USDA green round label, but one thing i noticed is that on the side of the box, it read, "certified organic by Quality Certification Services (QCS) and am not sure what that means.

The ingredients listed on the box, read: "organic macaroni product, made with organic semolina (from wheat), organic cheddar cheese sauce mix, organic whey, organic skim milk, organic cheddar cheese, cultured pasteurized organic milk, non-animal enzymes, salt, organic cornstarch, yeast extract, annatto. (color)

By all accounts this is Organic Mac n Cheese, is there anything else i'm suppose to be on the look-out for, to insure that it is indeed certified USDA organic?

jose123's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 20 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 03/31/2009

Each has 20 acres and is known as a "clean" farmer. Neither uses genetically engineered seeds that might play havoc with existing species. Neither sprays pesticides associated with cancer and other illnesses. And neither uses synthetic fertilizer that can feed the plant but leave the soil barren.

Still, only one of them can tell you his tomatoes are "organic." The other uses the label "certified naturally grown."
Organic food sales may be a sliver of food sales nationally, but they are increasing by about 20 percent each year. Despite a slight economic downturn in organic sales this year, a growing number of us care about those labels and what they mean, especially at supermarkets where the word "natural" is not regulated and you can't always get the story directly from the farmer.

More labels are on the way. The federal government is at work on rules for its own "naturally raised" label. Already those proposed rules -- with no provision for whether an animal is in a feedlot or on pasture -- have caused conflict with those now using the "certified naturally grown" label. Also, those growers are slightly in conflict with those who use the "organic" label.

Queasy? There are many who believe this friction is worth it, that good food is always important enough to talk about, even argue about.

Here's what we found while looking behind the labels used by our two farmers.

Benchoff's farm is certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The emergency medical instructor from Mansfield decided to go back to the land a few years ago, believing the profit from organic farming could help him make a living from his small farm. It helps that his wife, Lori, works off the farm to bring in a regular salary and health benefits.

To earn the "organic" label, Benchoff keeps detailed records of all his work and materials from seed to market, right down to the names of each plant growing in each row. That costs him time, possibly two weeks of time, over the course of a year.

He presents that paperwork to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, or OEFFA, a longstanding organic certification group and one of two in Ohio that certify for the USDA. Benchoff pays OEFFA $600 a year, and he also allows the government to do a third-party review of his farm.



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