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Organic 101: The Lifecycle of Organic Food Production

This is the fifth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

Through defined farming practices, organic principles promote ecological balance, foster the cycling of resources, and conserve biodiversity. To understand what that means when it comes to the label on your food, those principles require some more explanation.

Let’s take a closer look at a snapshot of sustainable food production, using the lifecycle of organic cheddar to get a fuller picture.

Before it can be turned into cheese, organic milk must come from a certified organic cow. The organic cow cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics, and its feed must be 100 percent organic. Organic feed comes from land not treated with any prohibited substances (e.g., synthetic fertilizers and most synthetic pesticides) for at least 3 years prior to harvest.  The land must be managed in a way that maintains soil fertility and minimizes erosion, while distinct and defined boundaries make sure prohibited substances don’t come into contact with organic fields. The animal grazes on organic pastures for the entire grazing season, which must be at least 120 days a year, and receives at least 30 percent of its nutrition from pasture during the grazing season.

Throughout its life, the animal is raised in living conditions that accommodate its natural behaviors and support its health and welfare. If it gets sick and needs treatment with antibiotics or other drugs, organic standards require that it receive these treatments but then must be removed from organic production. In other words, product from treated animals can no longer be sold, labeled, or represented as organic. However, operators are forbidden to withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in an effort to preserve its organic status.

Cows in a field.  Before it can be turned into cheese, organic milk must come from a certified organic cow.  For products like cheddar cheese to have the certified organic label, both the dairy farm and the cheese processing facility must meet the USDA organic regulations.

Cows in a field. Before it can be turned into cheese, organic milk must come from a certified organic cow. For products like cheddar cheese to have the certified organic label, both the dairy farm and the cheese processing facility must meet the USDA organic regulations.

Assuming the farmer has followed the regulations up to this point, the organic cow is milked and the milk transported to a certified organic processing facility.  The organic milk then goes through the “cheddaring” process, during which an enzyme called “rennet” is added to separate the curd (semi-solid chunks) and whey (liquid). (Rennet is an example of a non-agricultural substance that is allowed in organic food products).

Both the certified organic dairy farm and the cheese processing facility are inspected by a National Organic Program-accredited certifying agent at least once a year. These top-to-bottom inspections ensure that operations are meeting or exceeding all of the USDA organic regulations, maintaining important records, and following their written organic system plans. For example, the dairy farmer’s Organic Farm plan outlines how he or she manages pastures, keeps the cows healthy, and maintains the land’s soil and water quality, while the cheese facility’s Organic Handling plan covers how organic ingredients are sourced and equipment is cleaned between batches, especially if the facility processes both organic and non-organic cheeses. Records allow certifying agents to ensure organic integrity from the raising of the animal to the processing of the milk to the transporting of cheese to market. So, next time you see an organic product in the store, you can know how it came to bear the label, and have confidence that the National Organic Program is working to ensure organic integrity from farm to table .

10 Responses to “Organic 101: The Lifecycle of Organic Food Production”

  1. Marcella Anderson says:

    You assume the farmer follows correct organic procedures,
    The “assume” really bothers me.

  2. USDA spokesperson says:

    Marcella, thank you for pointing that out. The word was meant to express the idea that if all of the regulations have been followed up to this point, then organic processing can move forward. The reason for comprehensive organic system plans and thorough on-site inspections by the USDA accredited certifying agent is precisely to ensure that producers and processors are *verifiably* following the standards.

  3. Jessica says:

    Thanks for a nicely written article that explains, in plain English, a process that is quite complex. Now I understand why organic food is always more expensive and appreciate all the extra work that goes into growing/making safe products for our families!

  4. tim p. miller says:

    I have been COrganic for 22 years and what bothers me is the words ustainable and natural for a farmer to use for marketing at farmers markets. I would never use those words in discribing my farm because I would assume they are either to cheap, using treated seeds and riding on the coat tails of Certified Organic farmers who have gone the route of paper work and a trail of what is bought,sold and field work.

  5. Tina says:

    After reading this article I would like to know what type of Rennet is being used in the Orangic making of cheese? If they are using anything other than a Organic Rennet I would consider the chesse not to be oraganic.

  6. Demeter says:

    You say “organic feed” but what about grass? And are these cattle grass fed and grass finished? THere needs to be a distinction, as even with organic feed, grain is an unnatural food for cattle that leads to unnaturally fast growth, illness requiring those antibiotics, and a horrid Omega fatty acid ratio which leads to heart disease.

  7. Gwen says:

    I also would like to know about the rennet source. Also in reference to this: ” The animal grazes on organic pastures for the entire grazing season, which must be at least 120 days a year, and receives at least 30 percent of its nutrition from pasture during the grazing season”- where are they held for the remaining 242 days n pasture, and what specifications are given for the other 70 percent of their diet? As we know, corn, whether or not it’s organic, isn’t something any cow can readily digest.

  8. Rebecca [USDA Moderator] says:

    @Tina, Demeter, Gwen and others following our Organic 101 series:

    Thanks so much for your comments and questions on this topic. There are multiple labeling terms that are applied to foods, including natural, grass fed, pasture-raised, and humane. The National Organic Program explains them briefly at http://1.usa.gov/MoHOuw. The organic label is reserved for products that follow the criteria mentioned above and can fall into four different labeling categories (http://1.usa.gov/KwyaWm). If you see the USDA organic seal on a product, it is certified to have 95% or more organic content; remaining ingredients still have to meet their own standards and be specifically identified by the organic regulations as permissible in organic foods—such is the case for rennet. As for other provisions concerning livestock raising practices, they are all outlined beginning here: http://bit.ly/J3liTA. Among many criteria, organic livestock are required to have year round access to the outdoors and a total feed ration of agricultural products that are 100% organic.

    There’s much to learn about organic, and your comments help us determine what to address next, so thank you and keep them coming.

  9. Kenny says:

    After reading the material concerning what is organic or not and the myriad labyrinth of regulations that farmers contend with I can honestly say with confidence that farmers are indeed special and not the rubes T.V has portrayed them to be! God bless America!…and it’s farmers.

  10. Glyn Woolley says:

    Hello, does the USDA organic seal have to be on all labelling included imported cheese? If so does the USDA have an overseas inspection service that can visit and check compliance or are the Government regulatory veterinary and Food Service Authorities own verification enough for the seal? Many thanks

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