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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

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Comments

Lynne Cim
Feb 28, 2018

Foraged, non-food, products cannot be certified organic correct? For example, kapok that is used for pillow and mattress stuffing.

Ben Weaver
Mar 09, 2018

@Lynne Cim - thank you for your comment. To learn more about organic textiles, view the National Organic Program Handbook memorandum on Labeling textiles that contain organic ingredients. In addition, anyone can contact a certifying agent to discuss options for certifying specific non-food products as organic. For a list of USDA-accredited certifiers, access the Certifier Locator.

Abhinay
Mar 12, 2018

we need what type of tests will be done by USDA to promote or sell it as an organic product?

Sarah Moretz
Mar 20, 2018

Thank you for this information. As someone who is new to healthy eating it is a daunting task to find trustworthy information.
Have a great day.
~Sarah Moretz

Ron. Williams
Mar 21, 2018

How can the usda label bananas. Organic. When they. Are. Grown on trees in other tropical areas of the world

Neil Buntyn
Apr 28, 2018

Why is bleached white table sugar listed USDA organic on the package in grocery stores when it obviously has been bleached, spun and stripped of any organic matter. A child knows you can't take nutrients out of food without using chemicals. To top it off there is zero nutritional value listed on the Nutrition Facts. Explain to me what is organic about this. It is clearly obvious the USDA or FDA workers who approved have never visited a sugar refinery or must be getting paid to look the other way.
Do I really have to file a petition with the USDA to have misleading labels removed. I thought this was the job of the USDA and FDA to protect consumers from misleading labels? Come on now !
Let me save you some time and a trip to the sugar refinery. You tell me if the chemicals added to your sugar are Organic"Turbinado, white, brown"? Do your job its what we pay you for.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9J7pOU5FSg

Smart Consumer
Apr 28, 2018

Let me inform the staff of the USDA that your last statement here must be enforced to for this claim to be valid.
consumers can be assured that USDA organic products are verified organic at all steps between the farm and the store.
The job of the usda is to insure consumers are getting products that comply with the USDA organic regs and you should stop all retailers from selling refined sugars that are claiming Organic on the labels of these products because they are using solvents which are clearly not organic ( Methacrylic Acid, Methylene chloride and Sodium Hydroxide )
Do your job , Send a letter now to all refineries and retailers. Order these companies to cease and desist using the usda organic labels immediately. Due to solvents used in the refining process of sugarcane , sugarbeet and corn.

Frances j.
Apr 29, 2018

Does this hold true for fruit juices also?

Becky Burch
May 08, 2018

I bought a bag of Cheetos from Frito lay that claims to be organic but upon closer inspection by reading the ingredients list on the back says that the product contains maltodextrin which is gmo corn. How do companies get away with saying they're organic when it's obvious that they're not?

Kristin Hamilton
Jun 11, 2018

Is all food with the label USDA organic grown in USA? Is Aldi Supermarket milk Organic milk from cows milked in USA?