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.
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.
Four labeling categories
There are four distinct labeling categories for organic products – 100% organic, organic, “made with” organic ingredients, and specific organic ingredients.
1. 100% Organic products must be made up of 100% certified organic ingredients. The label must include the name of the certifying agent and may include the USDA Organic Seal and/or the 100% organic claim.
2. Organic products 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 5% 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.
3. Made with organic ingredient products cannot carry the organic seal. At least 70% of the product must be certified organic ingredients. 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. 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.
4. Specific organic ingredients. Multi-ingredient products with less than 70% certified organic content would fall under the “specific organic ingredients” category 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.
Learn more about organic labeling by visiting: Labeling Organic Products.pdf.
Source: USDA blog