This is the third installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.
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.
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Hi, how about posting a usda organic label to illustrate your post. thanks
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: (https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/2100.pdf)
in place already?
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!!
Why isn’t all food grown this way regardless? Does having the organic option imply that nonorganic food has safety issues, like GMOs & pesticides?
So if a product has the organic seal, but then the ingredients don't have the word "organic" in them, what does that mean?
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.
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?
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?
@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.
Is food certified organic by the USDA ever grown outside the USA ?
@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.
Thank you for the time you have taken to put out this material. :) YOU'RE appreciated. Stacy from Oklahoma
Why do products use the organic, USDA, and non-GMO stamps with a PLU that starts with the number 8?
@GG - thank you for your comment. The PLU, or Price Look-Up, code is overseen by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS). Please contact them for more information.
Hi, I love your page and teach it to my food and nutrition class❤️
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.
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
@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.
Thanks for the info. I'm going to ask our fresh produce in Palm Springs if they're USDA Organic certified.
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.
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.
When Organic farms receive their annual inspection, is the soil analyzed? Is there a threshold for soil contaminants to qualify as organic/not?
I have an organic moringa farm and processing plant in Nicaragua. We are schedule to pursue an organic certification through Mayoyga to obtain the USDA Organic seal on our labels. Are they considered a Third Party? We have passed our Certification of Analysis in both Nicaragua and the US. Does US resales require more than this?
Thank you, Linda Gable
@Linda Gable - thank you for your comment. There are two ways foreign organic products can be sold as organic in the United States: (1) the products are certified to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulations by a USDA-accredited certifier, or (2) the products are certified under a foreign organic standard that the USDA has determined equivalent. A USDA-accredited certifier can be found by using our Organic INTEGRITY Database (OID) Organic Certifier Locator. When you select an accredited certifying agent, they will be your primary resource to ensure proper U.S. labeling requirements and necessary trade documentation for importing your organic product. All imported organic agricultural products must comply with the USDA organic regulations and maintain organic integrity during the import process. This factsheet on Importing Organic Products to the U.S. (PDF, 2 MB) provides useful information on importing foreign organic products, and for information on which foreign organic standards the USDA has determined equivalent, you can visit our International Trade Partners webpage.
@Linda Gable - thank you for your inquiry. There are two ways foreign organic products can be sold as organic in the United States: (1) the products are certified to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulations by a USDA-accredited certifier, or (2) the products are certified under a foreign organic standard that the USDA has determined equivalent. A USDA-accredited certifier can be found by using our Organic INTEGRITY Database (OID) Organic Certifier Locator. When you select an accredited certifying agent, they will be your primary resource to ensure proper U.S. labeling requirements and necessary trade documentation for importing your organic product. All imported organic agricultural products must comply with the USDA organic regulations and maintain organic integrity during the import process. This factsheet on Importing Organic Products to the U.S. (PDF, 2 MB) provides useful information on importing foreign organic products, and for information on which foreign organic standards the USDA has determined equivalent, you can visit our International Trade Partners webpage.
I have two comments:
1- Thank you to Ben Weaver for taking the time to actually read the postings and respond to the pertinent ones; that is commendable.
2- For me, personally, the only relevant posting I found was Casey Mock's (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?". That posting crystalized very pointedly the following question that I have had in my mind for awhile but have been unable to frame succintly: Why should only the people who can afford the extra cost of the "organic" food have that choice? Does this not create and perpetuate a two-class system? If all farmers and corporations were mandated to only grow/produce truly organic food, under the strict monitoring by and accountability to the Federal government, every member of our society would be playing on a level health field.
I just read a consumer reports article that states USDA organic standards do NOT test for heavy metals. Is this accurate?
@Wendy Stancil - thank you for your comment. The organic standards, in § 205.203(c) and (d), require that producers manage plant and animal materials, crop nutrients and soil fertility “to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.” Organic producers must demonstrate in its organic system plan (OSP) how they manage crop nutrients and soil fertility.
Prior to certification, at each annual renewal inspection and during other unannounced inspections, USDA accredited certifiers review each producer’s OSP to confirm compliance with the organic regulations. As part of its review process, certifiers use a combination of random and risk-based targeted testing, which may include testing of water, soil, seeds, and plant tissue, as well as testing of soil specifically for heavy metals. Certifiers must, on an annual basis, sample and test from a minimum of five percent of the operations it certifies.
Certifiers can use a range of factors from inspector observations, to market conditions and an operation’s compliance history to determine when to conduct which type(s) of testing. Learn more about USDA’s approach to organic oversight and enforcement in our Risk-Based Oversight course, recently launched in the Organic Integrity Learning Center.
honestly I like both organic and non organic food equally because I just get the brand that tastes better
Thank you for clarifying this for me.
Why are genetically modified products not considered "organic"? Seems like genetic engineering is a good way to produce "natural" products that don't have harmful natural characteristics, as produced by belladonna or poison ivy. Furthermore, naturally genetically modified organisms are just as likely to be "frankensteins". E.g., English ivy, killing forests, zebra mussels, interfering with anything that uses seawater in a process. I would imagine the public is more interested in not being harmed by a product than how it was bred.
I seek out organic and local foods in all categories. If I can't find organic in something I need or want, I seek out local. Sometimes I go without. Certain foods I will not buy if I can't find organic. I grow some of my own and sometimes eat edible wild plants.
Why can’t we have these same standards for all of our food? Sounds like organic really means “not poisoned.”