Amid a storm of information, facts, and counterarguments, people are becoming more confused as to the benefits of organic food. An average shopper doesn’t have the time nor the desire to decipher labels, food packages, and nutritional information. So, very few of them actually know what the USDA Certified organic label stands for.
To shed some light on organic foods, organic certifications, and organic food labels, we have prepared some valuable information for you to go through. Here’s your guide to understanding certified organic products (and a bit about the long process that ends with a farm obtaining its organic certification).
USDA Certified Products: What Does the Label Stand For?
As part of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), certain foods and products need to meet specific requirements in terms of production and processing to be compliant with federal guidelines. These requirements involve soil quality specifications, animal raising instructions, and guidelines, pest control, weed elimination, fertilizer use and more.
According to Dan Glickman, US Secretary of Agriculture in 2000, these guidelines are “the strictest and most comprehensive organic standards in the world”. Of course, such a statement is enough to have shoppers in awe of the produce they’re about to buy. Even so, what are these strict standards and how does a farmer prove that his or her crops truly meet these requirements?
When aiming to obtain a 100% certified organic label, producers must demonstrate that their crops or products only contain ingredients that have been organically produced The USDA and NOP have published detailed lists showcasing the exact types of synthetic and non-synthetic substances that are allowed or barred from being used in organic agriculture.
With regards to certified organic products, the USDA currently only recognizes four types of products: crops, livestock, processed organic foods and wild crops).
For instance, produce can only be called organic if its producers can verify that it has:
- Been produced on soils free of prohibited substances (for at least three years preceding the harvest)
- In the case of meat, dairy and livestock, the regulations indicate that animals should have been raised in accommodating conditions similar to what they would naturally encounter in the wild (grazing, pasturing). Additionally, they must be fed only 100% organic forage and feed. Last but not least, no antibiotics or hormones are allowed to be administered.
- For processed organic foods, regulations indicate that no such product may contain any other ingredients than organic and that no preservatives, flavors, coloring agents or other artificial substances be added.
The certification is awarded by a private, foreign or state entity accredited by the USDA, called “certifying agents”.
Certified Organic Label and Consumers
The idea behind the certified organic label is to dispel confusion among consumers as to the ingredients found in the products they are purchasing. Be it skin care products, rose hip oils, body lotions, body care items, beauty products, baby food or shampoos, the National Organic Standards have provided producers with clear instructions as to the substances that are allowed in their products.
Moreover, different labels will even detail the percentage of organic ingredients in the foods being purchased. 100% organic guarantees that absolutely all ingredients are organic, “organic” guarantees a 95% contents of organic ingredients while “made with organic ingredients” guarantees that at least 70% of all ingredients are organic.
For foods containing at least 95% organic ingredients, the remaining ingredients may only represent substances that have been scientifically reviewed, petitioned and found that no organic substitute is present on the USDA’s list of allowed substances. This list contains some substances that are either synthetic but allowed in organic crop production, non-synthetic but barred from organic crop production, synthetic substances allowed for livestock production and non-agricultural substances that may be incorporated as ingredients of processed products labeled “made with” or “containing” organic ingredients.
The same certified organic label also guarantees that no genetically modified foods were incorporated or used in the production of the foods they are purchasing.
To ensure that organic products truly meet these requirements, USDA regulators perform annual onsite inspections of certified organic farms and processors. They examine whether these producers only use the materials and substances approved and included in the USDA’s National List of Allowed Substances, if organic food is separated from non-organic food, if genetically modified ingredients are used in any stage of the production process and if livestock and other animals are given an opportunity to exercise and have access to the outdoors.
These annual updates are part of the USDA’s annual recertification process, so the certification seal is proof that the producer is still in full compliance with the organic regulations as they are set forth by the USDA.
Aside from US-produced foods, the USDA must also ensure that imported organic foods meet the aforementioned standards. As such, only qualified organic food and fiber products will be allowed to enter the US.
With this guarantee, consumers can rest assured of the products that they are purchasing. In fact, the USDA has enforced hefty penalties if these organic labeling regulations are violated. Perpetrators may receive penalties of as much as $11,000.
Choosing Certified Organic Products
The choice of buying organic products is entirely up to you and depends on budget constraints, your willingness to go the extra mile when seeking out high-quality produce and your expectations.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that in many rural areas as well as developing countries, there are agricultural systems that are fully compliant with the organic certification regulations and requirements but lack the certification itself. This is what is called non-certified organic agriculture. Their existence outside the formal market system means that such foods, though considered “conventionally grown”, are organic in terms of not containing harmful pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
Such foods often reach consumers via local farmer’s markets and community producers or at the farm gate. Consequently, the costs of buying organic produce aren’t as high as one would expect (since transportation costs, packaging costs and other associated expenses are eliminated from the total cost of the product).