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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 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

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May 11, 2020

Hi, how about posting a usda organic label to illustrate your post. thanks

Deziree Melus
Jul 22, 2020

If I wanted to sell an herb garden kit with herb seeds, can I source seeds from China and have them labeled USDA certified organic? Or do I need to source seeds in USA to have them certified organic?

Does China and USA have that equivalence agreement referenced here: (
in place already?

Di Wilkinson
Aug 02, 2020

Thank you USDA for some guidelines and a quick run down of the current 'Organic' labeling. I have posted a short summary of this type of certification on my podcast, informed foodie. I earned my BS in Dietetics from UCDavis and continue to educate the public on issues surrounding nutrition. Thanks for the info!!

Casey Mock
Aug 11, 2020

Why isn’t all food grown this way regardless? Does having the organic option imply that nonorganic food has safety issues, like GMOs & pesticides?

Aug 12, 2020

So if a product has the organic seal, but then the ingredients don't have the word "organic" in them, what does that mean?

Roosevelt Harris
Aug 13, 2020

This sounds really good but does the USDA have the ability to inspect and make sure the requirements for "organic" labeling is met? I have read that the USDA does not have the resources for all the inspections required.

Emmet O’Connor
Aug 16, 2020

If fruit/ vegetables are grown in a greenhouse (or just artificial conditions can it still be classed as organic? Is there a scale say, non-organic/semi-organic/ organic that would apply to that based on the face that it’s an artificial environment that the produce is grown in?

Mr Tracy DeCoursey
Sep 06, 2020

isn't there 4 different class of organic foods or farming?
USDA Orangic, certified organic w/certifers name, certifed organic without certifiers name, and organic classifations?
Thank U

Ben Weaver
Sep 08, 2020

@Tracy DeCoursey - thank you for your comment. Please see the Organic Labeling Explained factsheet. Whether it’s the Organic Seal, Made with Organic, or a general description of “organic,” the USDA defines what qualifies under each of these terms.

Art Gershkoff
Sep 09, 2020

Is food certified organic by the USDA ever grown outside the USA ?

Ben Weaver
Sep 09, 2020

@Art Gershkoff - thank you for your comment. The USDA Organic Seal is the gold standard for organic in the U.S. and around the world. USDA accredited certifiers ensure farms and businesses that grow, process, buy and or sell products as organic meet the USDA organic regulations. In addition, the U.S. has established international trade arrangements to facilitate the exchange of organic goods between the partner countries. All imported organic agricultural products must comply with the USDA organic regulations, meet U.S. labeling requirements, and maintain organic integrity during the import process.

Stacy R. Quigg
Sep 10, 2020

Thank you for the time you have taken to put out this material. :) YOU'RE appreciated. Stacy from Oklahoma

Oct 15, 2020

Why do products use the organic, USDA, and non-GMO stamps with a PLU that starts with the number 8?

Jessie Brustle
Mar 19, 2021

Hi, I love your page and teach it to my food and nutrition class❤️

Linda Astwood
Apr 01, 2021

I have always had concerns about the distance my food travels prior to consumption. Given a choice, I will usually pick locally grown fruit and vegetables for a number of reasons. I know that cheap labor is always an issue in the mass production of any item. There are companies that consistently look for cheaper production options, as opposed to insuring quality, humane standards of production, and sanitary conditions. I am also concerned about the number of additives in or on my food to preserve it for storage and travel. For me, each level of interaction with a natural food product adds an element of risk to its consumption.

In reading this chapter, I have increased my awareness of organic label packaging. The 70% organic ingredient is not a strong enough reason to buy a partially grown organic dish. In my opinion, the fruit or vegetable is either organic or not. Organic tomatoes and genetically modified corn does not make a healthier dish.

Cynthia Blum
Apr 09, 2021

As a producer of organic juices and smoothies at a local farmer's market, I want to know what products are needed to safely wash organic produce and still be considered organic yet satisfy the Health Inspector?

Raw Raw Raw Food! LLC

Ben Weaver
Apr 14, 2021

@Cynthia Blum - thank you for your comment. The USDA organic regulations specify requirements for handling organic products. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List) identifies nonagricultural and nonorganic agricultural substances (ingredients) that may be used in organic handling. The National List also identifies the synthetic substances allowed in organic farming and the natural substances prohibited in organic farming. Some substances on the National List may only be used in specific situations, e.g. only for certain crops or up to a maximum amount.

We encourage you to contact a USDA-accredited certifier or a consultant for specific information on the substances allowed or prohibited in organic handling.

Jane G.
May 22, 2021

Thanks for the info. I'm going to ask our fresh produce in Palm Springs if they're USDA Organic certified.

Jun 26, 2021

All citizens should insist on organic or what is used on the products they eat everyday to help keep some of the pollution that has invaded our growing land.

John Whiting
Jul 07, 2021

By "genetically modified organisms", you'te teferring spefically to gene-splicing, correct?

Because any plant or animal bred for specific characteristics (pretty much all domesticated animals and plants) has had its genes modified. The natural evolutionary process does it all the time, too.

Perhaps the government sjould narrow the definition a bit, to make it a bit less confusing, a bit more specific, and more accurate scientifically.

Jul 19, 2021

When Organic farms receive their annual inspection, is the soil analyzed? Is there a threshold for soil contaminants to qualify as organic/not?