Skip to main content

Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means

Posted by Miles McEvoy, National Organic Program Deputy Administrator in Health and Safety
Mar 22, 2012

This is the third installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

Organic certification requires that farmers and handlers document their processes and get inspected every year. Organic on-site inspections account for every component of the operation, including, but not limited to, seed sources, soil conditions, crop health, weed and pest management, water systems, inputs, contamination and commingling risks and prevention, and record-keeping. Tracing organic products from start to finish is part of the USDA organic promise.
Organic certification requires that farmers and handlers document their processes and get inspected every year. Organic on-site inspections account for every component of the operation, including, but not limited to, seed sources, soil conditions, crop health, weed and pest management, water systems, inputs, contamination and commingling risks and prevention, and record-keeping. Tracing organic products from start to finish is part of the USDA organic promise.

Amidst nutrition facts, ingredients lists, and dietary claims on food packages, “organic” might appear as one more piece of information to decipher when shopping for foods.  So understanding what “organic” really means can help shoppers make informed choices during their next visit to the store or farmers’ market.

USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.

Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment (see other considerations in “Organic 101: Allowed and Prohibited Substances”).

As for organic meat, regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.

When it comes to processed, multi-ingredient foods, the USDA organic standards specify additional considerations. Regulations prohibit organically processed foods from containing artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors and require that their ingredients are organic, with some minor exceptions. For example, processed organic foods may contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients, like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods.

When packaged products indicate they are “made with organic [specific ingredient or food group],” this means they contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices (genetic engineering, for example) but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in 100% organic products. “Made with organic” products will not bear the USDA organic seal, but, as with all other organic products, must still identify the USDA-accredited certifier. You can look for the identity of the certifier on a packaged product for verification that the organic product meets USDA’s organic standards.

As with all organic foods, none of it is grown or handled using genetically modified organisms, which the organic standards expressly prohibit (see “Organic 101: What Organic Farming (and Processing) Doesn’t Allow”).

Becoming familiar with the USDA organic label and understanding its claims empower consumers to make informed decisions about the food they purchase. While there are many marketing claims that add value to foods, consumers can be assured that USDA organic products are verified organic at all steps between the farm and the store.

Category/Topic: Health and Safety

Write a Response

CAPTCHA This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments

rwilymz
Mar 22, 2012

This is all great.

Of course you realize that because idiot consumers demanded that the government get involved with the definition and certification policy, and the government has a one-size-fits-all mentality, and the one-size that the government serves best is the mega-industrial size, that small farmers who do not have on-staff loyyers and CPAs cannot become "certified organic" without spending a double-digit share of their annual revenue satisfying your bloated process.

As it stands right now, "organic" is used mainly by the same industrial ag outfits as consumers were trying to get away from by having organic food in the first place.

BJ
Mar 26, 2012

I think it's wonderful that you are doing these blogs. Thank you. As for the issues with consumers and understanding regulations...this is a problem in all areas of agriculture, not just organic. At least the NOP is trying and creating a place for understanding and comments. Bravo.

commoncents
Mar 28, 2012

Yep the USDA. They sure have kept our food supply safe and healthy over the past 30 years. Let my organic farmers and growers do their job so I can buy their products at their farms and at markets. USDA let's markets sell 'pink slime' ground beef. Let's talk about USDA and the corporate 'dairys' they license. No one can keep track of where that milk comes from. USDA allows carrageenan in infant formula for crying out loud. It's a bowel irritant. Anyone can write a list of standards. No one is honest enough to enforce them. What a load.

Old_Technician
Mar 28, 2012

USDA is not serious enough about organic agriculture as is evident by the limits for cost share as opposed to what I can receive as a conventional producer. This is blatant discrimination. There are also not enough staff that are knowledgeable or want to work with organic producers. We need to be thinking ahead a few decades to when the oil, water and fertilizer run out. How do we farm then? Organic production in this country needs to be ramped up significantly and taught extensively. Our future food security and millions of starving people are at stake in the coming decades. I can produce enough food on 20 acres to feed 100 families easily with organic production. I am also building soil carbon and helping reduce greenhouse gases. Why not put some folks from Rodale on the staff of USDA to balance out the number of ex-Monsanto employees working there? USDA is more about production these days than about sustainability.

Pamela
Apr 02, 2012

I agree with the Old Technician. We need to strive to produce food in the adsence of oil and fertilizer. Too many of our farmers are producing food that we don't even eat directly. It is grown to prop up some other industry. Like the Old Technician said, it is amazing how much food you can grow just on 20 acres. If if concentrate on feeding our communities good quality foods, the world will take care of itself.

Mel Kreb
Apr 11, 2012

I appreciate what the USDA did under the direction of Enrique Figueroa to create the federal rule for organic food in the Clinton Administration. Our first year of certification was expensive and complex but I now appreciate the hard questions and close scrutiny of verifiable facts that the CCOF inspector demanded. I was then surprised to find there was a cost share program to help with a portion of the costs, applied, and got a refund on our investment. Healthy organizations have diverse viewpoints among their employees. I think the USDA organics program is working where I live and the way to get to work where you are is to get involved. Enjoy your newsletter and blog. Flood Plain Produce, Pepperwood, California

senseless
May 08, 2012

what rwilymz means is he thinks anyone should be allowed to put an "organic" label on things and lie to consumers, because the government stepping in when it comes to consumer rights isn't one of the first amendments or anything.

Margo Wallace
Jan 24, 2013

It would be good for USDA to promote and support the increased production of non GMO wheat. Research is showing increased health problems with GMO wheat.

Thank you.

Patty G
Jun 04, 2013

I'm looking at this website to learn how to purchase non-GMO foods. But I still can't figure out whether products labeled "organic" are GMO-free.

Abe K
Sep 10, 2013

I'm puzzled. If the USDA certifies that a meat processing plant is "Organic", it doesn't necessarily mean that the meat processed at that plant is organically raised. How can a consumer determine the difference. Are there regulations that require an processor that is certified as Organic to process only organic meat?

Hooty Hootowl
Feb 09, 2014

More BS from the USDA. Did you know they can use GMO seeds for USDA Organic. Hence making it NOT ORGANIC. F da USDA (aka POlice)

Greg Lowe
Oct 09, 2014

What is the relationship and boundary limits between the FDA and USDA regarding the regulation of food production? Curious that the FDA appeared to have no legally enforceable definition of "organic." Is the USDA labeling strictly advisory, or is it enforceable?

Ben Weaver
Oct 15, 2014

@Greg - thanks for the great question! The USDA National Organic Program regulates all organic agricultural products certified to the USDA organic standards. Organic certification verifies that farms or handling facilities comply with the organic regulations and allows producers to sell, label, and represent their products as organic. Consumers purchase organic products expecting that they maintain their organic integrity from farm to market. Through enforcement, USDA creates a level playing field by taking action against farmers and businesses that violate the law and jeopardize consumer confidence in organic products.

In addition to meeting the USDA organic standards, organic products must also follow all the same food safety regulations as conventional food products. USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged. FDA is responsible for overseeing the rest of the U.S. food supply. While the organic regulations are not a food safety standard, the National Organic Program coordinates closely with FDA and FSIS on food safety guidance.

Denise
Jun 23, 2015

My main concern is the USDA Organic certified meat. I have little option where I live to purchase organic. In regards to the slaughtering of the animals, nothing is mentioned. Are there any different regulations on this? Are the animal still sent to a factory for slaughter. How does this actually occur. I am totally against the horrors of factory farming. Thanks.

Debbie
Oct 22, 2015

I find it amazing how many legitimate questions are not being answered.... do you think that the people asking will just forget about what they asked? They won't. You picking and choosing to answer the questions that may not make you look like you are in the pocket of big chemical companies,won't work. It is obvious that you ignore the very real concerns citizens have. So, once again, if everything is organic in a processed product but it contains a GMO citric acid, do you label it 'organic'?

Allen
Jan 31, 2016

Claims are wide spread across the internet that "Research is showing increased health problems with GMO wheat" and other GMO grown crops, yet no one can actually produce any of those studies. It's simply internet rhetoric hysteria that is being spread. No one that I know wants their food treated with pesticides so why not try to develop other means of insect resistance crops by using GMO's or some other way? Many crops simply can't be grown on a large scale without some way of controlling pests.

CityGirlGardener
Feb 19, 2016

Why I support the USDA organic label? Because for items that I don't grow, that's all I have.

Red Baron Farms
Mar 20, 2016

I believe you have strayed too far from the real meaning of "organic" in the certification process. It was in your old definition: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."-USDA

I believe that your regulations sometimes go too far, and sometimes not far enough, and the way to decide that the above ruler needs used.

hgmercer
Jun 15, 2016

I don't agree. - Hermine

Mike
Jun 16, 2016

I recently purchased grapes from Aldi and became very ill after consuming less than 15 grapes. I had the grapes tested RioBlanco Black Seedless Grapes had 5.00ppm formaldehyde reading (0.22 ppm is natural). 25x any natural level. The company stated I was the only one to complain. They also stated the batch was shipped mid May - almost 30 days had past. What grape stays perfectly crisp and fresh 30 days? I also bought USDA Organic certified but did not consume - by Llano both of Mexico and tested 1.14ppm (5x higher than natural occurring). This packaging is a complete fraud as USDA and FDA to allow the stores to sell products saturated in formaldehyde. As of today these grapes are still being sold in the Palm Springs Aldi Market. Formaldehyde is a CA Prop 65 Chemical and is illegal to be used without a disclaimer - but we allow big business to pretend and USDA and FDA do little if nothing to protect the certification standards. Why?

Consumers deserve to know what they are eating and the term organic certified is meaningless when we allow this behavior to continue. Organic = nothing and all credibility is lost with me as it should from all consumers.

Patricia Rain
Jun 18, 2016

All vanilla is grown organically without chemical pesticides, herbicides, etc. However, most vanilla farmers are small shareholder producers and cannot afford to be certified. On my website I say that our vanilla is "organically grown." I do not say it is "certified organic." I do sell certified organic vanilla also but I have it packaged and shipped from the supplier. Is it okay to say "organically grown?"

Paul Presutti
Jul 17, 2016

We deserve to know what we are eating!

Chris
Nov 04, 2016

It is truly sad how many people are blind to the dangers of the food they buy and eat. You have to be absolutely senseless not to TASTE the organic difference.

Often I feel like the only reason I care about organic and others don't is because I'm forced to, due to my obesity, and they don't have to care about what they ingest.

The saddest part is my fellow college students will sit there and spew the same nonsense that everyone else does, that "organic isn't any better."

The reality is they're denying it because they don't want to spend more money on their food. But this is an illusion because if you ration yourself, organic winds up costing the SAME. Except with a budget on organic you're not overindulging on extravagant things, you're eating ONLY WHAT YOU NEED.

The real problem here is we're so used to our luxuries that we all need to be reminded of what the Africans have to subsist on. Grains, that's it. They don't get to drink the milk or eat the meat from the cattle they raise, they must sell it to make a living. All they get to have is grains.

While these American fools are off indulging on their lobster and alcohol.

John Kisida
Jan 17, 2017

I live in a tiny town , and the is a organic store but the produce is not organic , most is bought at Costco, and the shelf says organic. Why cant they be honest if the regulations are to hard to produce . I have no use for pesticides , and no immunity to them, so my question is if your produce is not organic , and sone of the package goods are certified with the seal. I lived in Oregon close to California where there was an abundance of vegetables that had the labels certified . Since I moved to Montana , the food make me sick full of GMO’s , It’s not funny but I bought a lemon , that ha no sour tast , it was strange I got a lemon for a lemon. It’s not the money , it’s my health. Brings me to the subject of GMO’s , the death of all of us , and if it dose not say no GMO, then it’s genetically altered . If anyone have noticed babies and very young children are dieing of cancer soon after GMO’s were approved by our FDA, who wont allow the nutritional facts to be stated on some products that are good for the pharmaceutical
companies has them in there pocket, and don’t want us to be healthy using homeopathic remedies.. I’ve been a vegetarian all my life and this food on the shelves inflating in price weekly is junk food , and poisoning us . Is it legal to buy produce from Cusco and put it on the shelf listed as organic when it not and GMO infected?

John Kisida
Jan 17, 2017

Sorry I misspelled my email , ao I will try again , please disreguard first post .
Your comment is awaiting moderation.

01/17/2017 at 2:42 AM

I live in a tiny town , and the is a organic store but the produce is not organic , most is bought at Costco, and the shelf says organic. Why cant they be honest if the regulations are to hard to produce . I have no use for pesticides , and no immunity to them, so my question is if your produce is not organic , and sone of the package goods are certified with the seal. I lived in Oregon close to California where there was an abundance of vegetables that had the labels certified . Since I moved to Montana , the food make me sick full of GMO’s , It’s not funny but I bought a lemon , that ha no sour tast , it was strange I got a lemon for a lemon. It’s not the money , it’s my health. Brings me to the subject of GMO’s , the death of all of us , and if it dose not say no GMO, then it’s genetically altered . If anyone have noticed babies and very young children are dieing of cancer soon after GMO’s were approved by our FDA, who wont allow the nutritional facts to be stated on some products that are good for the pharmaceutical
companies has them in there pocket, and don’t want us to be healthy using homeopathic remedies.. I’ve been a vegetarian all my life and this food on the shelves inflating in price weekly is junk food , and poisoning us . Is it legal to buy produce from Cusco and put it on the shelf listed as organic when it not and GMO infected?

Siraceki
Apr 18, 2017

There is a requirement that crops be raised on fields not treated with synthetic fertilizers for three years. The question I have is how do these fields gain the micro organisms so important to organic foods. Many of the fields used 3 years ago had been depleted of these essential vitamin and minerals so important to crops that are truly organic. What is the real time to bring these elements back to field that were essentially sterilized.

Monte
May 10, 2017

What percentage of California State Department of Agriculture personnel are assigned to even monitor and manage "CLAIMS" that a producers product meets the guidelines to be organic? AND, how many producers (percentage) have never even been verified as to the validity of their products being labeled as "Organic"?

My belief is at best 1% for each question! This whole "organic" thing sounds good on paper, and only misleads consumers into 'thinking' they are purchasing truly "Organic - by definition" foods.

An extremely high percentage of producers are selling products labeled as "organic" that are not at all meeting the state guidelines.

Proof, is that there is nearly no regulation (percentage of producers actually being checked) of this.

Therefore, these so-called "organic" producers are ripping off consumers with higher prices. AND, the consumer is being misled and screwed by a scheme that cannot even be verified by what little staff the California Department of Agriculture can even monitor!!!!

This is a system that should never have been put into place unless the ability to regulate was already in place and CAPABLE of monitoring it for the consumers safety and wallet!!

Monte
May 10, 2017

AND, as consumers we can fight this marketing slime machine:

DO NOT BUY ANYTHING THAT's LABELED ORGANIC!!!!!!

Although now COSTCO no longer sells Ketchup but "organic" Ketchup!!!!!!!!

So we may be becoming screwed already if this trend is allowed to continue.

Jane Michels
Jul 23, 2017

I'm looking right now at a can of Blue Sky Soda - "Organic" Root Beer. It has the USDA Organic stamp on it and everything. Seemed to good to be true....and it was.

I read above - "When it comes to processed, multi-ingredient foods, the USDA organic standards specify additional considerations. Regulations prohibit organically processed foods from containing artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors and require that their ingredients are organic, with some minor exceptions. For example, processed organic foods may contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients, like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods.

Then I look at the ingredients and the only thing Organic is the Cane Sugar. Then the list goes on to say "Natural" Root Beer Flavor, Caramel Color and Citric Acid. So two things (if not 3) are exactly what they say above are prohibited. Yet this company is getting away with it...much like many other companies...and nothing is being done to this company to remove the USDA Organic stamp from the front of their can. I just looked up Blue Sky and they were bought by Monster Energy Drinks and then therefore Coca-Cola. Now it all makes sense on why they are getting away with it....but if this soda is getting by, then yeah, like the rest of you I wonder what is really even being regulated in the Organic Vegetables, Fruit, Meat, etc.

You can basically put the stamp on your product and charge more and nothing is going to happen to you. I'm going to be doing this with my new product line and I'm going to see what happens.

Kylie
Aug 25, 2017

Hi!
I am hoping someone can answer this for me. If I were to buy wholesale certified organic beeswax and just repackage it into small containers (without altered or adding anything to the beeswax) Would I be able to call it organic and/or use the certified organic label? Or would I need to have it certified again?

Earnie
Aug 25, 2017

Yeah sure it is for a price. You pay the right person you get a stamp. Organic is as real as bottled waters comeing from natural springs.

Virginia shoaf
Sep 07, 2017

It's a good idea to put organic u.s.d.a. on to say read " more glutin free safer, product" .
If the label read it's better then the glutin free products ,more people will be safer, because thiers more people who eat glutin free products thinking thier ok, when the glutin free products still have some ingedientd that can contaminated,them ,
I understand the u.s.d.a. organic labels. Thier more better then the glutien free products.
Also with the coffee, it's better to drink organic because glutin free coffee is like almost regular coffee, that's why tiers , it's better n safer to go organic , then gluten free products to be on the safe side. Thank you , your information was very helpful,
I tried to explain it to those that think ,that thier smarter, sometime they need more education of gluten free products n organic products, because organic is better n safer,

Virginia shoaf.
Sep 07, 2017

Advice , it's better to label the gluten free on organic products ,
More safer gluten free for u, so people will understand that organin products are more safer n better then gluten free labels...
Some people don't understand the difference from gluten and organic,
Gluten free has only 74% percent safe, and organic u.s.d.a. has about 95% percent safer,
Some people get confused.
The government administrate inspected need to label the organic products " more safer then gluten free products" on the organic u.s.d.a labels, it will help those illterate people who think thier smarter then the the wiser educated,
The organic farmers would make more money, the government administrate would advised better knoledge and save more lived of people with illnesses like.
Gastritis, ciliac deaseses, driverturculitis, and better aware then of cancer , because I believe the cure for cancer first we need to pray, spitualky , generally , aware the people that cancer starts by inflamation any where in your body , then
I believe cancer starts from air in your body , any information in your body , n if people go organic foods, are better living and drinking and eating alkline drinks n foods thier chances of getting cancer n preventing Thur cancer from soreding can be helpful to🍉 thier families , friends n nighbors .
My mediacl break thru, if people stop eating fast food fatty foods,sugars ,and start eating more glutin free or more better n safer u.s.d.a. organic products , thier inflamation will go away n chances are they won't get cancer .... Medical break thru for science to start awaring the people with syndroms, disorders, and desease .before they get diagnosed with gastritis, ulcers I the stomach, acid reflux, gerd, driverturculitis,ciliac deaseses,before they get inflammation and get colon , cancer, or pancreatic , stomach, esophugus, lung or any cancer that kills the nurves, muscles, tissues ,and cells that causes the cancer to be terminal cancer,
People may not believe in what I say, but if u get inflamation ,it's the beganing of🌶🌽 of cancer. Thanks...... Medical break thru...

Nik
Oct 25, 2017

I was wondering what the difference between 95% and 100% organic is? Besides the obvious 5%, is there any difference to the consumer? If something is 95% organic, does it get the USDA sticker?

Jan Schreiber
Nov 21, 2017

Is USDA organic products tested for lead and radiation in the soil and water it is grown with?

Heather
Nov 22, 2017

I'm doing a project on organic ingredients and this was a great site! It helped a lot!

Tom
Dec 05, 2017

Makes no sense!
Honest kids juice has an USDA organic label yet it is only 42% juice with water as the remainder.
Water is NOT an organic ingredient.

Ben Weaver
Dec 07, 2017

@Tom - thank you for your comment. “Organic” can be used to label any product that contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Up to 5 percent of the ingredients may be nonorganic agricultural products that are not commercially available as organic and/or nonagricultural products that are on the National List. The USDA organic regulations explain how to calculate the percentage of organic ingredients.

John Muto
Dec 09, 2017

How well does the USDA and FDA monitor farms that are considered "organic"? It seems an impossible feat. Are we really getting organic foods labeled as such? How do we know?

Ben Weaver
Dec 12, 2017

@John Muto - USDA’s National Organic Program takes seriously its responsibilities to oversee the 37,000-plus certified farms and businesses that use the USDA organic label. More information about NOP’s enforcement of the organic standards is available on this page: ams.usda.gov/services/enforcement/organic

Alice Alexander
Jan 02, 2018

So "organic" meat is raised in what would reasonably be considered humane conditions? I wonder if that's actually true. For example, pastured chicken eggs (and to a lesser degree, free-range eggs ) are distinct from organic chicken eggs. The first group, in my understanding, more explicitly accommodates the animal's needs. Whereas "organic" eggs merely come from chickens fed organic foods. True?

Sharleen
Jan 02, 2018

Good article

Hal Kempen
Jan 03, 2018

Bayer neonictoids that kill bees so well, are "ORGANIC" because they are derived from natural chemistries.
Organic guidelines allow what is needed, including pesticides that are more toxic or equal to most "non-organic herbicides". Of course, all are organic moieties.

Neil buntyn
Jan 17, 2018

Then if all these requirements must be met to the usda . Then please explain how man made REFINED table sugar labelled as organic after seven hazardous chemicals are added in and all the nutritional value of the sugarcane is stripped out ? Please explain

brandon
Jan 23, 2018

The usda is a great system that provides me 99% of the time with the organic foods that I need. But we all deserve to know what we are eating!

Pam Hilbun
Jan 24, 2018

This article was very informative and easy to understand for someone like me looking into organic for the first time!!

Ben Weaver
Jan 30, 2018

@Neil buntyn - thank you for your comment. USDA certified organic products must be produced in accordance with the organic regulations and without the use of prohibited substances or excluded methods like sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering.

Tom Johnson
Feb 20, 2018

Cool. This really helped me