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Understanding the USDA Organic Label

Posted by Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program in Food and Nutrition
Jul 22, 2016
Understanding the USDA Organic Label
Understanding the USDA Organic Label

Amidst nutrition facts, ingredient lists, and dietary claims on food packages, “organic” might appear as one more piece of information to decipher when shopping for products.  Understanding what the organic label means can help shoppers make informed purchasing choices.

Organic is a labeling term found on products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. The National Organic Program – part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service – enforces the organic regulations, ensuring the integrity of the USDA Organic Seal.

In order to make an organic claim or use the USDA Organic Seal, the final product must follow strict production, handling and labeling standards and go through the organic certification process.  The standards address a variety of factors such as soil quality, animal raising practices, and pest and weed control.  Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.  

Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.  Organic produce must be grown on soil that had no prohibited substances (most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) applied for three years prior to harvest.  As for organic meat, the standards require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors, fed organic feed, and not administered antibiotics or hormones. 

There are four distinct labeling categories for organic products – 100 percent organic, organic, “made with” organic ingredients, and specific organic ingredients.  

In the “100 Percent Organic” category, products must be made up of 100 percent certified organic ingredients.  The label must include the name of the certifying agent and may include the USDA Organic Seal and/or the 100 percent organic claim.  

In the “Organic” category, the product and ingredients must be certified organic, except where specified on National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.  Non-organic ingredients allowed per the National List may be used, but no more than five percent of the combined total ingredients may contain non-organic content.  Additionally, the label must include the name of the certifying agent, and may include the USDA Organic Seal and/or the organic claim.

For multi-ingredient products in the “made with” organic category, at least 70 percent of the product must be certified organic ingredients.  The organic seal cannot be used on the product, and the final product cannot be represented as organic – only up to three ingredients or ingredient categories can be represented as organic.  Any remaining ingredients are not required to be organically produced but must be produced without excluded methods (genetic engineering). All non-agricultural products must be allowed on the National List.  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.

Multi-ingredient products with less than 70 percent certified organic content would fall under the “specific organic ingredients,” and don’t need to be certified. These products cannot display the USDA Organic Seal or use the word organic on the principal display panel.  They can list certified organic ingredients in the ingredient list and the percentage of organic ingredients. 

Becoming familiar with organic labeling allows consumers to make informed decisions about the products they purchase.  Consumers can be assured that the integrity of USDA organic products are verified from farm to market. You can learn more about organic labeling by visiting: Labeling Organic Products.pdf.

 

 

 

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition

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Comments

Natalie Preis
Jul 22, 2016

What is confusing though is that single ingredient items imported from the EU can only be labeled "organic" rather than "100% organic" because the EU does not recognize the "100%" designation. This is confusing for consumers, because they then want to know what the "other 5%" is when the single ingredient is, in fact, 100% organic.

Marvin Marlin
Nov 16, 2016

We (Del Monte Fresh Produce) currently ship certified organic product from several different Central and South American countries. Due to the limitations for corrugated packaging, we do NOT have the luxury of printing the USDA organic seal in either 4-colors or in the black (black is not a color used by Del Monte on secondary packaging). We have historically printed the label in green as has many other importers without issue. We would like to have this option reviewed by the USDA so that we do not continually run afoul of inspection agencies on the farms. Also, understand that printing a special label to go on each carton is both labor intensive and more expensive.

Regards,
MD Marlin, Jr.
VP Corporate Packaging
Del Monte Fresh Produce
Coral Gables, FL

Kristie Work
Jul 19, 2017

Please what are the four specific colors and what do they mean?

1. green = 100% USDA Organic

and are these the other seals:
2. Black
3. Blue
4. White

Please advise

Ben Weaver
Jul 20, 2017

@Kristie Work - To protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal, only two color options are allowed: the green-white-brown version, or the black-white version.  These parameters are described in the USDA organic regulations, and are summarized at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/organic-seal. Variations in color are not permitted. We do allow a transparent background in place of the white for black and white printing (e.g., if the seal is printed in black ink on a cardboard box, the background does not have to be white ink).  There is no allowance for blue or other colors besides those allowed in the regulations. Anyone with evidence that the USDA organic regulations have been violated can submit a complaint. Here’s how: https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/enforcement/organic/file-complaint

Rach
Dec 04, 2017

Do products certified as organic in Taiwan also fall under the USDA Organic Certification ?
I get different answers. One source says that any products that are certified by Taiwan Ministry Of Health also fall under USDA Organic Cert Program. Another source says Certified Organic products in Taiwan are not recognised by USA nor by any countries. So if I have a product that’s certified organic in Taiwan and I’m selling in US without a USDA organic certification, is this allowed ?

Ben Weaver
Dec 07, 2017

@Rach - Organic products imported to the U.S. from Taiwan must be certified to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulations by a USDA-accredited certifier. Products certified to the USDA standards anywhere in the world may be shipped to the U.S. and sold as organic. Products must comply with the organic regulations and should follow general U.S. trade policy. 

A list of USDA certified operations located in Taiwan is available in the Organic Integrity Database.

Ronald Beaver
Jan 16, 2018

The USDA organic label is losing value. Laws are becoming less demanding and changes are being made to what "organic" means. The USDA even recognizes hydroponic grown produce as organic. The organic label is about as accurate as the "all natural" label seen on highly processed foods. If it's not labeled as nongmo project, it's probably not worth getting. Until the USDA takes responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the organic label and actually caring about the well being of the country, nothing will change.

Marlee
Jan 30, 2018

I'm working on a particular project where, because of colour limitations, black ink is unavailable. We also do not have the opportunity to add add'l pantones colours. The 6 colours we're allowed are already accounted for. That means the CMYK version won't work either. Is there an option that allows for the darkest ink colour available to be used in place of black?

Ben Weaver
Jan 30, 2018

@Ronald Beaver - thank you for your comment. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) develops national standards for organically-produced agricultural products. The same standards apply to all USDA certified farms and businesses, including hydroponic operations. Certification of hydroponic production systems has been allowed since the National Organic Program began.

Ben Weaver
Mar 09, 2018

@Marlee - thank you for your comment. The USDA organic seal is an official mark of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service and its use is protected by federal law. The organic regulations currently allow two different color schemes when using the organic seal. Additional guidance on use of the USDA organic seal is available online at: www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/organic-seal.

Tammy Spindor
May 07, 2018

I would like to point out that in the CFR Title 7 Subpart D section 205.311 (a)The USDA seal described in paragraphs (b) and (c) of this section may be used only for raw or processed agricultural products described in paragraphs (a), (b), (e)(1), and (e)(2) of §205.301.

Could you please tell me where is (c) of this section? I would like to know what it is so that I may make sure that I am following the CFR's correctly.

Thank you.

Crystal Clear
Oct 17, 2018

When can we actually have FOOD without anything Genetically Altered, or Grown or Sprayed with any Chemical ? When I say Chemical, I mean substance of any kind listed as can do any harm in any amount no matter how minimal YOU say it is. I am pesticide TOXIC, MERCURY AND LEAD TOXIC AND HAVE BECOME SEVERELY IMMUNE COMPROMISED. I eat an all organic diet, including 100% grass fed meat now for over 13 years and still test positive for pesticide overload. I purify my water and spend a fortune seeing doctors. How much is this putting a smile on your face? I have no money to spend on life because I'm busy spending my savings on trying to stay alive from a compromised immune system. I can't eat bread, grains, legumes or even milk. Do realize how much that impairs your eating? How about you? I can't go on vacations or fun.

Sophie Tan
Nov 25, 2018

Understand that all organic products sold in USA must be certified to the USDA NOP organic regulations. Australian certified organic is currently not recognised by USDA.
Is it allowed then to sell a 'conventional' product but at the back of pack still list use of Australian certified organic ingredients?

Ben Weaver
Nov 27, 2018

@Sophie Tan - thank you for your comment. In the U.S., if you want to sell, label or claim that a product or its ingredients are organic, your final product generally needs to be certified to the USDA organic regulations. Organic products imported to the U.S. must comply with the USDA organic regulations or be certified to an equivalent international standard, meet U.S. labeling requirements, and maintain organic integrity during the import process. If your product is not certified to one of these standards, you must not make any organic claim on the principal display panel or use the USDA organic seal anywhere on the package. On the information panel, you may identify USDA-certified ingredients and ingredients certified to an equivalent standard as organic and identify the percentage of organic ingredients included in the final product.