What Is Organic?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards for growing, handling and processing. Organic is one of the most heavily regulated and closely monitored food system in the U.S.
Any product labeled as organic must be USDA certified. U.S. organic standards require:
- Farms and companies must submit a detailed application that outlines their operation, processes and products. This is called an Organic Systems Plan and its purpose is to help inspectors and consumers trace organic products from the farm to the table.
- Thorough certification inspections by third-party inspectors, both announced and unannounced, are done to ensure organic label products are grown, processed and handled properly. Certifiers also audit the farm or company records to trace organic products from ingredients and seeds to their processing and packaging.
- All products bearing the organic label must comply with federal, state, FDA, and international food safety requirements.
Organic food contains no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. Generally, all ingredients used in organic food must come from organic farms. There are a few exceptions but these can only be used once it is proven that other organic products were not effective. Minor non-organic ingredients used in processed organic food — applesauce for example — must come from a list of approved substances that have been evaluated for safety and their impact on both human and environmental health. This is referred to as the “National List”. This list is reviewed every five years by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to assess whether new information might impact the list. For the very few synthetic products on the list, currently only 25 for pest control as compared to more than 900 for conventional, the NOSB evaluates to see if a new organic alternative has become available. By law, these ingredients must make up 5% or less of the total ingredients used to make organic food.
Only producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods are exempt from this certification but they are still required to follow the USDA’s standards for organic foods.
If a food bears a USDA Organic label, it means it’s produced and processed according to the USDA standards. The seal is voluntary, but many organic producers use it. Products that are completely organic, such as fresh produce, are labeled 100 percent organic and can carry the USDA seal.
Foods containing more than one ingredient, such as applesauce, can use the USDA organic seal plus the following wording, depending on the number of organic ingredients:
- 100 percent organic. To use this phrase, the applesauce must be either completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
- The applesauce must be at least 95 percent organic to use this term. If the applesauce contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients, the processor may say “made with organic ingredients” on the label, but can’t use the seal. While the applesauce with less than 70 percent organic ingredients can’t use the seal or the just the word “organic” on its label, the organic items can still be on their ingredient list.