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 13, 2019

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.


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.

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.

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?

Jul 25, 2018

What are the symbols on the labels for Organic foods in the USA? List and define. What are the supermarket codes for non-GMO foods?

Ayman Zaki
Aug 29, 2018

Does Organic chemical mean it is also food grade?
I am using a bug repellent at a food facility. It is certified Organic. Does this mean it is Food Grade material? Similar to Food Grade Lubricants that could be used on the machines?

Scott Rosenstein
Sep 04, 2018

I like all the soda organic ingredients. This way I succeed
Sincerely and thank you
Scott Rosenstein

Oct 06, 2018

That was helpful information regarding growing and harvesting organic foods but my question is does usda organic food contain a higher level of minerals and vitamins than non organic, ie is organic food healthier?

Charles Longmire
Oct 07, 2018

If we allow other countries to supply us with "organic" foods are our inspectors allowed and how do they have the time to travel and inspect the growers and farmers in the other countries?

Anthony Southern
Oct 10, 2018

ORGANIC vs NON-ORGANIC: (Sorry for the length, worth the read though IMO.)

Through out my entire working career, I have always been involved with technical engineering and analytics of product and machinery, or the components used in design and manufacturing the product of multiple Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies. I GIVE THIS QUICK PERSONAL BACKGROUND TO PREFACE MY ANALYTICAL OBSERVATIONS BELOW resulting from an un-ending search for food that is not detrimental to human consumption.

For about 10 - 15 years I have had mild or "normal" tinitus (ringing of the ears). Over time it was noticed that eating at fast food restaurants within City Mucipalities would make the volume of tinitus ringing significantly louder. Over 21 years, I had good, pure, well water at my home in the sandy hills way out in the country of my state. I sold my place in the country, and moved into a city neighborhood which uses Municipality water. My tinitus ringing volume went significantly higher and never came back down; I quickly learned it was the city tap water making it so much worse. So I switched to pure, bottled, spring-water for all drinking and cooking, and my tinnitus was kept at a "normal" lower level for the next 5 or 6 years.

THEN, I was in a serious, 5-car pile-up wreck on an Interstate Highway. I hit my head and (5) safety air-bags exploded loudly and simultaneously inside my compact car. But no windows were broken which increased the airbags explosion's loudness to my ears. This wreck made my tinnitus ringing dramatically increase to a permanent volume varying from (2) to (3.5) times louder than a normal TV volume.

This new severe or chronic tinnitus ringing volume TURNED ME INTO A FOOD ANALYST searching for some relief.

Like the old canary bird testing the air in a coal mine, my tinnitus ringing now tells me within 20 minutes after eating a meal whether the food I have consumed has BAD levels of pesticides, herbacides, and preservatives. My tinnitus ringing will subsequently shoot up from about 2X normal TV volume to about 3X, and even 3.5X, louder than normal TV volume.

It must be that my damaged, weakened hair folicles in my ears are now super sensitive to chemical invasion when consuming Processed Foods or consuming NON-Organic foods.

Could a lifelong food attack from consumed, processed-food chemicals be what started the "normal" tinnitus ringing in the first place.?.? I would say Yes.

FURTHER and NOW WORSE: In the Spring of 2018 all of sudden, BOOM, no gradual increase; my feet have started burning like fire when I eat processed foods and Non-Organic foods, especially VEGETABLES. I have switched and searched food brands and stores for relief. It can be done, BUT it is extremely hard to find food that does not create the burning sensation in my feet.

(I have read and researched all or many of the online white-papers about diets for pre-diabetes and/or neuropathy, and I am trying to closely follow those food recommendations. And do find these diets to help a little bit.)

The ONLY REAL RELIEF I find is to make mental note of which foods consumed make the tinnitus or feet-burning occur or get worse, and avoid those foods and while cooking all meals at home. Then, after confining myself for days or a week or two of known "good" foods, the tinnutus ringing is lowered to 2X TV volume, and the foot burning sensation is totally gone.

THEN: I re-introduce foods one at a time which I had always been eating prior to Spring of 2018. Without exception, VEGETABLES are the absolute worse. Probably because vegetables have absorbed the pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, and chemical micro-nutrients into the fiber and fruit of the plant. You can wash these store bought vegetables over and over, but you can not wash the chemicals away that are absorbed into these foods.

It is easier to find an ORGANIC vegetable that does not create the tinnitus and neuropathy-like symptoms than it is to find a good NON-ORGANIC vegetable. However, many ORGANIC vegetables are just as bad, and some ORGANIC vegetables are way worse than standard vegetables.

Also, foods and juices which the labels say can come from Mexico or South America are the worst or hardest to find that do not cause these problems when consumed.

It makes me wonder about the anomalous neuropathy-like spike, just mentioned, occurring this past Sring of 2018 with foods apparently highly contaminated with food chemicals or either used GMO products. Were Mexican or South American food production people mad at the USA for various political reasons .?.? And, so they reverted to using whatever they wanted to cheaply increase their product yields .?.?

NOTE: To add validity of my above findings, I retired early at the age of 61 back in the Spring of 2017. And, now I can more easily control or know where all my food comes from. No more carelessly dashing into a restaurant for Lunch or for Supper on the way home from work.

SUMMARY: Just because spinach from your favorite grocery or your favorite SUPER STORE grocery is labeled USDA-ORGANIC, does not mean it is necessarily more safe; but the odds are better than Non-Organic. Additionally, any "Organic" juice that has "filtered water" in its contents was always found to be bad at exasperating tinnitus and neuropathy like symptoms.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: (City Municipal "filtered water", used by most food processing plants, contains: permanganate, carbon, polymers, chlorine, fluoride, alums, phosphates, and salts used at electrolysis boosters to re-chlorinate city water in various points of long distribution systems, etc. Municipalities try to follow EPA or local regulations, but they appear most concerned with protecting the inner linnings of their distribution pipes from rust and corrosion. So just saying, added water in food or juice can not, or should not, be classified as Organic.)

My best advice to all is to keep mental notes about what and where you eat; LISTEN to your body's negative reaction from any food you consume and avoid those foods, its worth the effort.

To the USDA-ORGANIC regulators and the FDA and EPA:

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE consistently and carefully enforce good food protection regulations; you are our country's hidden military force of protection from foreign enemies and slothful food producers.

Thank you,

Your Fellow USA Citizen

Oct 14, 2018

i fell like people should know what they are buying and why they are buying it. if people buy stuff because it says organic does not \\mean that it is the best for you. my parents would buy organic milk because it would last longer than the normal milk we would buy.

Tom Johnson
Nov 15, 2018

I've read everywhere that worm castings are organic. So if I raised a pumpkin using non organic fertilizer (miracle grow) I cannot sell that pumpkin as organic but if I feed that same pumpkin to my worms are the worms castings organic?
serious question

Elizabeth Reni
Feb 25, 2019

Hello Ben,

You are my only hope.

I am confused about something. Whenever you respond, you say 'certified organic'. However, nobody here has ever answered the following acceptably for me:

Is it illegal to use the word 'organic' on packaging WITHOUT bearing the USDA medallion (NOT 'certified organic' , but just 'organic')?

For example, if a tea company buys tea from Sri Lanka, and that tea has a legitimate organic certification document from an accredited certifier, but they do not want to go through the USDA certification, can they state on their product that the tea is 'organic' (NOT 'certified organic' , but just 'organic')?

No where in the actual CFR does it state that a product MUST be USDA certified in order to use the world 'organic'-- again, NOT 'certified organic' , but just 'organic'.

Please help me understand this. I have asked dozens of people and there is absolute garbage on the internet about this.

Mar 22, 2019

If I am making a based home product , can I used USDA on the product on the label

Ben Weaver
Mar 29, 2019

@Anna - thank you for your comment. "Made with Organic" is a labeling category for products certified to the USDA organic regulations. Access the Organic Labels Explained infographic to learn more about these categories.

The Organic Integrity Database is a searchable database that can be used to find information on certified organic operations and USDA-Accredited Certifying Agents. The database lists the company name for each certified operation and the products they are certified to produce or process. It is possible that a product’s brand name is different from the manufacturer’s or packer’s name. When searching the database, you may need to look for the manufacturer or packer shown on the back of the product label, rather than for the product’s brand name.

Mohasana Akter
Apr 26, 2019

I really like organic food but I always do not know which kinds of places sell organic food and I do not know what kinds of food are organic

Brent Norris
May 22, 2019

"Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides."
Organic to the USDA means, "possibly better".

Jun 06, 2019

I agree with the label being ridiculous in price but if I were an organic farmer and didn't want that price tag, get your buyers through work of mouth and showing off your farming practices. My question about this article is how do they validate that something is organic. Is it tested?

Gregory J. Rosen
Jun 08, 2019

Hello. I just ate some microwave popcorn from the company "Organics." I ate organic popcorn. Shortly after eating, I read an article that said microwave popcorn has some of the highest concentration of PFAs, what they call the "forever chemicals" because they don't break down in the environment and a very long time to leave the body. Does Organics microwave popcorn also have PFAs?

Ed Kugler
Jun 27, 2019

What is the anniversary date when the usda seal became law

Glenn Fry
Aug 07, 2019

We have customers that ask for Pesticide analysis on finished dried product or the fresh mango used for this product. If the fresh product is organic certified should that not be proof that there is not pesticide?

Ben Weaver
Sep 05, 2019

@Glenn Fry - thank you for your comment. USDA organic products have strict production and labeling requirements. Organic certification verifies that certified organic products meet all requirements in the USDA organic standards. These organic standards specify production and processing requirements, such as conserving natural resources and preventing commingling with non-organic products. They also specify which substances are allowed and prohibited. For example, growth hormones, sewage sludge, irradiation, genetic engineering (genetically modified organisms or GMOs), and most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited in organic production or processing.

To learn more, access the Allowed and Prohibited Substances (PDF, 5 MB) fact sheet.

Laura Dely
Aug 14, 2019

Palm Fruit Oil and it's brother Palm Kernel Oil should be banned from Organic Foods. There are egregious problems with PFO plantations installed on forests burned to make way for them. Forest dwelling species are killed and displaced, while greenhouse gas emissions are increased by huge measure. It is a different way to farm that is as harmful as are pesticides. USDA should incorporate a PFO ban in organics today.

Sep 09, 2019

All of that just to charge 4 times as much on the store shelf. If GMO and all that were truly dangerous, it would be banned or extremely regulated (by yall at the FDA or UDSA), Gotta love it.

percy yu
Oct 06, 2019

My wife bought green beans which is anemic with small beans inside. She said the grocer told her that's because they are organic and attract bugs that make the plants grow smaller beans. Your article confirms my believe. It will be kind for you to reply my message in simple English. Thanks

Charles sexton
Oct 30, 2019

Can USDA Organic food be grown anywhere in the world, or only in the USA?

Marvin Arts
Nov 11, 2019

I would like to know if organic fruits and vegetables are allowed to grow in their natural state without man taken or adding anything. I would like to know because I purchase a bag of organic limes and there were no seeds in them and anything coming from God can reproduce after itself and a fruit should have seeds unless man has done something to it. Please let me know. Thank you.

Ben Weaver
Nov 13, 2019

@Marvin Arts - thank you for your comment. Organic is a labeling term that indicates a specific food or agricultural product has been produced and processed in a way that complies with the USDA organic standards. The USDA organic standards specify production and processing requirements, such as conserving natural resources and preventing commingling with non-organic products. They also specify which substances are allowed and prohibited. For example, growth hormones, sewage sludge, irradiation, genetic engineering (genetically modified organisms or GMOs), and most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited in organic production or processing.

Dec 11, 2019

In addition to specify the condition of growing a grain, does "USDA organic" implies also that the plant has been grown in the USA ? or, could the grain with this label come from abroad ? Thanks

Ben Weaver
Dec 17, 2019

@Fournet - thank you for your comment. The USDA Organic Seal indicates that a product has been grown and processed according to the organic regulations. The USDA establishes international organic import and export policies to facilitate trade and expand market opportunities for certified organic farms and businesses around the world. Imported organic products, must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifier or meet an authorized international standard under an established trade partnership. The U.S. has established organic trade arrangements with Canada, the European Union, Japan, Republic of Korea and Switzerland. These arrangements help food producers located in the U.S. import organic ingredients that are not produced within the U.S.

Jan 22, 2020

it is certified by the USDA mean it is grown in the US? thanks so much.

Jan 22, 2020

Does organic mean that the seed is organic and heirloom and non-gmo? thanks

Ben Weaver
Jan 23, 2020

@Christy - thank you for your comment. USDA authorizes organizations around the world to certify farms and businesses to the USDA organic regulations. Products certified to the USDA standards anywhere in the world must comply with the organic regulations.

Feb 28, 2020

I love this article!

Mar 01, 2020

If "organicly" grown foods are considered as being more "wholesome"; then, aren't their shelf lives shorter (No preservatives)? Wouldn't that also then cause more rapid turnover rates? I believe that any food that fills one's stomach is especially good for consumption, but in being "greenwise"; some things do tend to get misconstrued, don't they?

Banwari Lal maholia
Mar 26, 2020

I need usda certificate

Apr 01, 2020

Are all organic foods antibiotic and hormone free - ie - ice cream?

Ben Weaver
Apr 02, 2020

@Barbara - thank you for your comment. The use of antibiotics and growth hormones is not allowed in USDA certified organic livestock including dairy cows and their dairy products. Certified organic milk or cream that might be found in ice cream, for example, must be antibiotic and hormone free.

Ice cream is a multi-ingredient processed product, and in order for a processed product to display the USDA Organic label, at least 95% of the ingredients must be certified organic. The remaining 5% of ingredients in the product must be ingredients that have been specifically approved for use in organic products and are on the National List. Each certified organic ingredient must meet all the requirements.

For a processed products with a “Made with Organic Ingredients” statement, at least 70% of the ingredients must be certified organic.

Food manufacturers are allowed to label individual ingredients in the finished product as organic on the ingredients list but cannot display the USDA Organic label or describe the product as organic.

Here is a graphic that outlines the requirements that must be met in order to display the USDA Organic label: Behind the Organic Seal, along with a chart that explains the different qualifications a processed product must meet in order to have the USDA Organic label: Organic Labels Explained.

Apr 15, 2020

Are the organic foods grown and processed in the USA or does it still allow for foreign meats to come here.

Apr 26, 2020

Why is the USDA labeling on products from China, are they 100% guaranteed safe and organic if listed with the USDA LABEL?

Are the third parties inspector following the USDA guidelines and your 100% sure?

T.J. McNew III
Apr 28, 2020

I am greatly concerned about the US beef, pork, poultry food supply in the United States. I do not believe that stem cell produced “meat like” products should be allowed to claim that they are meat, pork , chicken, etc. I further believe all meat, pork, poultry, fish should have labeling that states where the these products orginate.