Consumers: Labels and Laws
Organic is the most regulated and monitored food production system in the United States. If a label carries the USDA Organic Seal or a certifier name you can trust the food has been rigorously evaluated and meets the high standards of organic production. Here’s what you need to know about the labels and the government bodies and laws that control them.
There are four organic categories you may come across when shopping for food.
"100 Percent Organic"
Products must contain 100% organically produced ingredients with organic ingredients identified on the label. Labels may display the USDA Organic Seal and may also state the product is "100 percent organic."
Products must contain at least 95% organic ingredients that need to be identified on the label and may contain up to 5% non-organically produced ingredients which are not commercially available in organic form. Labels may carry the USDA Organic Seal.
"Made with Organic Ingredients"
Products labeled "Made with Organic [specified ingredients or food groups]" must contain at least 70% organic ingredients and no more than 30% nonorganic ingredients. GMOs are not allowed. The USDA Organic Seal is strictly prohibited on these product labels.
Specific Ingredients Listed
Products with 70% organic ingredients or less can specify organic ingredients in the ingredient list. The USDA Organic Seal and front panel claims about organic certification are prohibited.
Tip: Not all fruits and vegetables will come with a label, but the PLU (price look up) sticker can tell you if it is organic. If the code has 5 digits and begins with a 9, the produce was organically grown.
Tip: Fruits and vegetables at a farmer’s market may not come with label or sticker, and signage is not as strictly regulated as it is in grocery stores. Speak with the vendor if you are unsure about the farming practices.
Tip: "Natural" does not mean "organic"—in fact, it does not mean much at all. Until FDA establishes a definition for the word natural, consider it a marketing tactic.
Tip: Looking for a specific organic farm or food? The USDA Organic Integrity Database comprises over 37,000 organic food operations. Search for certified organic farms or businesses, or by organic foods produced.
Several government agencies, programs and laws ensure foods labeled as organic meet stringent production standards. This is who and what controls organic production and labeling.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for laws involving farming, agriculture, forestry and food. They oversee organic food production regulations.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating all packaged foods (including processed produce like applesauce) but raw fruits and vegetables are regulated by USDA.
National Organic Program (NOP) is run by USDA and is responsible for developing national standards for organically-produced agricultural products.
National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is an advisory board to USDA. It includes 15 volunteers from the organic community and makes recommendations on issues surrounding organic food production.
Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was enacted in 1990, authorizing NOP to set national standards for organically grown food and establishing NOSB to advise the Secretary of Agriculture in setting NOP standards.
Farm Service Agency (FSA) is a USDA agency that supports farms. FSA can help farms with the cost of transitioning to organic, organic certification and other factors in organic farming.
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a USDA agency that assists farmers who want to make conservation improvements to their land.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is run by NRCS to assist to farmers in implementing conservation practices that improve soil, water, plants, animals, air and natural resources. This program can help conventional farms transition to organic practices.