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Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means

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.

23 Responses to “Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means”

  1. rwilymz says:

    This is all great.

    Of course you realize that because idiot consumers demanded that the government get involved with the definition and certification policy, and the government has a one-size-fits-all mentality, and the one-size that the government serves best is the mega-industrial size, that small farmers who do not have on-staff loyyers and CPAs cannot become “certified organic” without spending a double-digit share of their annual revenue satisfying your bloated process.

    As it stands right now, “organic” is used mainly by the same industrial ag outfits as consumers were trying to get away from by having organic food in the first place.

  2. BJ says:

    I think it’s wonderful that you are doing these blogs. Thank you. As for the issues with consumers and understanding regulations…this is a problem in all areas of agriculture, not just organic. At least the NOP is trying and creating a place for understanding and comments. Bravo.

  3. commoncents says:

    Yep the USDA. They sure have kept our food supply safe and healthy over the past 30 years. Let my organic farmers and growers do their job so I can buy their products at their farms and at markets. USDA let’s markets sell ‘pink slime’ ground beef. Let’s talk about USDA and the corporate ‘dairys’ they license. No one can keep track of where that milk comes from. USDA allows carrageenan in infant formula for crying out loud. It’s a bowel irritant. Anyone can write a list of standards. No one is honest enough to enforce them. What a load.

  4. Old_Technician says:

    USDA is not serious enough about organic agriculture as is evident by the limits for cost share as opposed to what I can receive as a conventional producer. This is blatant discrimination. There are also not enough staff that are knowledgeable or want to work with organic producers. We need to be thinking ahead a few decades to when the oil, water and fertilizer run out. How do we farm then? Organic production in this country needs to be ramped up significantly and taught extensively. Our future food security and millions of starving people are at stake in the coming decades. I can produce enough food on 20 acres to feed 100 families easily with organic production. I am also building soil carbon and helping reduce greenhouse gases. Why not put some folks from Rodale on the staff of USDA to balance out the number of ex-Monsanto employees working there? USDA is more about production these days than about sustainability.

  5. Pamela says:

    I agree with the Old Technician. We need to strive to produce food in the adsence of oil and fertilizer. Too many of our farmers are producing food that we don’t even eat directly. It is grown to prop up some other industry. Like the Old Technician said, it is amazing how much food you can grow just on 20 acres. If if concentrate on feeding our communities good quality foods, the world will take care of itself.

  6. Mel Kreb says:

    I appreciate what the USDA did under the direction of Enrique Figueroa to create the federal rule for organic food in the Clinton Administration. Our first year of certification was expensive and complex but I now appreciate the hard questions and close scrutiny of verifiable facts that the CCOF inspector demanded. I was then surprised to find there was a cost share program to help with a portion of the costs, applied, and got a refund on our investment. Healthy organizations have diverse viewpoints among their employees. I think the USDA organics program is working where I live and the way to get to work where you are is to get involved. Enjoy your newsletter and blog. Flood Plain Produce, Pepperwood, California

  7. senseless says:

    what rwilymz means is he thinks anyone should be allowed to put an “organic” label on things and lie to consumers, because the government stepping in when it comes to consumer rights isn’t one of the first amendments or anything.

  8. Margo Wallace says:

    It would be good for USDA to promote and support the increased production of non GMO wheat. Research is showing increased health problems with GMO wheat.

    Thank you.

  9. Patty G says:

    I’m looking at this website to learn how to purchase non-GMO foods. But I still can’t figure out whether products labeled “organic” are GMO-free.

  10. Abe K says:

    I’m puzzled. If the USDA certifies that a meat processing plant is “Organic”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the meat processed at that plant is organically raised. How can a consumer determine the difference. Are there regulations that require an processor that is certified as Organic to process only organic meat?

  11. Hooty Hootowl says:

    More BS from the USDA. Did you know they can use GMO seeds for USDA Organic. Hence making it NOT ORGANIC. F da USDA (aka POlice)

  12. Greg Lowe says:

    What is the relationship and boundary limits between the FDA and USDA regarding the regulation of food production? Curious that the FDA appeared to have no legally enforceable definition of “organic.” Is the USDA labeling strictly advisory, or is it enforceable?

  13. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    @Greg – thanks for the great question! The USDA National Organic Program regulates all organic agricultural products certified to the USDA organic standards. Organic certification verifies that farms or handling facilities comply with the organic regulations and allows producers to sell, label, and represent their products as organic. Consumers purchase organic products expecting that they maintain their organic integrity from farm to market. Through enforcement, USDA creates a level playing field by taking action against farmers and businesses that violate the law and jeopardize consumer confidence in organic products.

    In addition to meeting the USDA organic standards, organic products must also follow all the same food safety regulations as conventional food products. USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged. FDA is responsible for overseeing the rest of the U.S. food supply. While the organic regulations are not a food safety standard, the National Organic Program coordinates closely with FDA and FSIS on food safety guidance.

  14. Denise says:

    My main concern is the USDA Organic certified meat. I have little option where I live to purchase organic. In regards to the slaughtering of the animals, nothing is mentioned. Are there any different regulations on this? Are the animal still sent to a factory for slaughter. How does this actually occur. I am totally against the horrors of factory farming. Thanks.

  15. Debbie says:

    I find it amazing how many legitimate questions are not being answered…. do you think that the people asking will just forget about what they asked? They won’t. You picking and choosing to answer the questions that may not make you look like you are in the pocket of big chemical companies,won’t work. It is obvious that you ignore the very real concerns citizens have. So, once again, if everything is organic in a processed product but it contains a GMO citric acid, do you label it ‘organic’?

  16. Allen says:

    Claims are wide spread across the internet that “Research is showing increased health problems with GMO wheat” and other GMO grown crops, yet no one can actually produce any of those studies. It’s simply internet rhetoric hysteria that is being spread. No one that I know wants their food treated with pesticides so why not try to develop other means of insect resistance crops by using GMO’s or some other way? Many crops simply can’t be grown on a large scale without some way of controlling pests.

  17. CityGirlGardener says:

    Why I support the USDA organic label? Because for items that I don’t grow, that’s all I have.

  18. Red Baron Farms says:

    I believe you have strayed too far from the real meaning of “organic” in the certification process. It was in your old definition: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”-USDA

    I believe that your regulations sometimes go too far, and sometimes not far enough, and the way to decide that the above ruler needs used.

  19. hgmercer says:

    I don’t agree. – Hermine

  20. Mike says:

    I recently purchased grapes from Aldi and became very ill after consuming less than 15 grapes. I had the grapes tested RioBlanco Black Seedless Grapes had 5.00ppm formaldehyde reading (0.22 ppm is natural). 25x any natural level. The company stated I was the only one to complain. They also stated the batch was shipped mid May – almost 30 days had past. What grape stays perfectly crisp and fresh 30 days? I also bought USDA Organic certified but did not consume – by Llano both of Mexico and tested 1.14ppm (5x higher than natural occurring). This packaging is a complete fraud as USDA and FDA to allow the stores to sell products saturated in formaldehyde. As of today these grapes are still being sold in the Palm Springs Aldi Market. Formaldehyde is a CA Prop 65 Chemical and is illegal to be used without a disclaimer – but we allow big business to pretend and USDA and FDA do little if nothing to protect the certification standards. Why?

    Consumers deserve to know what they are eating and the term organic certified is meaningless when we allow this behavior to continue. Organic = nothing and all credibility is lost with me as it should from all consumers.

  21. Patricia Rain says:

    All vanilla is grown organically without chemical pesticides, herbicides, etc. However, most vanilla farmers are small shareholder producers and cannot afford to be certified. On my website I say that our vanilla is “organically grown.” I do not say it is “certified organic.” I do sell certified organic vanilla also but I have it packaged and shipped from the supplier. Is it okay to say “organically grown?”

  22. Paul Presutti says:

    We deserve to know what we are eating!

  23. Chris says:

    It is truly sad how many people are blind to the dangers of the food they buy and eat. You have to be absolutely senseless not to TASTE the organic difference.

    Often I feel like the only reason I care about organic and others don’t is because I’m forced to, due to my obesity, and they don’t have to care about what they ingest.

    The saddest part is my fellow college students will sit there and spew the same nonsense that everyone else does, that “organic isn’t any better.”

    The reality is they’re denying it because they don’t want to spend more money on their food. But this is an illusion because if you ration yourself, organic winds up costing the SAME. Except with a budget on organic you’re not overindulging on extravagant things, you’re eating ONLY WHAT YOU NEED.

    The real problem here is we’re so used to our luxuries that we all need to be reminded of what the Africans have to subsist on. Grains, that’s it. They don’t get to drink the milk or eat the meat from the cattle they raise, they must sell it to make a living. All they get to have is grains.

    While these American fools are off indulging on their lobster and alcohol.

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