Everything I Need to Know About Organic Foods


Organic Food

How to Fully Understand The Labels on Organic Foods

Why Organic Foods are Better for Health

Why Organicically Grown Foods Are Better for the Health of Our Planet

How to Understand the New Regulation of Organic Foods

Other Questions About Organic Foods

Organic Food

What is organic food?

Organic refers to an "earth friendly" and health-supportive method of farming and processing foods. Weeds and pests are controlled using environmentally sound practices that sustain our personal health and the health of our planet. The term "organic" applies to both animal and plant foods.

Organic farmers do not use chemicals (pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers) in an environmentally harmful manner. They utilize a blend of old and new technologies and scientific research to balance the earth's natural ecosystem. Examples of organic farming methods include:

  • Rotating crops between fields. This helps keep pests from building up and improves soil fertility.
  • Planting select bushes and flowers to attract beneficial insects which ward off unwanted pests.

Organic farming produces nutrient-rich, fertile soil which nourishes the plants, and it keeps chemicals off the land to protect water quality and wild life. Organic farming also gives us food that is safer to eat and much more likely to keep us healthy.

How to Fully Understand the Labels on Organic Foods

What Does the "Organic" Label Mean?

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets, defines and regulates the use and meaning of "Organic" on food labels. It is the term used to describe raw or processed agricultural products and ingredients that have been (a) organically grown (farmed) and (b) handled in compliance with the new standards of April 2001 and to be fully enforced by October 2002. The new standards prohibit the used of:

  • Most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
  • Sewer sludge fertilizers
  • Genetic engineering
  • Growth hormones
  • Irradiation
  • Antibiotics
  • Artificial ingredients

So, when you see foods that have the word “organic” on the label you can be assured that they meet these strict standards that were established for organic foods.

How to understand the different use of the term "Organic" on food labels.

Many people are not completely sure about the precise meaning of the word "organic" or "organically grown" on food labels. One of their concerns is whether or not they can trust that the words ensure that the foods were grown or produced without the use of potentially hazardous chemicals.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the term "organic" can be applied to a variety of different kinds of foods. The term can be used on agricultural products, and on meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. And it also applies to the methods used to process organically grown foods in preparing them for market or to retard spoilage.

Organically Grown Crops:
  • The crop must be produced on land without the use of synthetic substances (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers) except those provided by the standards.
  • No prohibited substances can have been applied to the land for 3 years prior to harvest.
  • The land must have defined boundaries and buffer zones preventing the crop to have contact with prohibited substances from adjoining land.
  • Soil fertility and crop nutrient management must be done in a manner to improve soil conditions, minimize soil erosion, and to prevent contamination of crops, soil or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms or heavy metals:
    • Use of crop rotation
    • Use of composed animal manure with specified carbon to nitrogen ratios and temperature readings.
    • Use of uncomposted plant materials
  • Use of sewage sludge is prohibited
  • Seeds, seedlings and planting stock are organically grown except as provided in the law.
  • Genetic engineering is prohibited
  • Pest problems controlled by mechanical and physical methods including:
    • Introduction of predators or parasites of the pest species
    • Development of habitat for natural enemies of the pests
    • Use of lures, traps and repellants
  • Weed problems controlled by:
    • Mulching
    • Hand weeding and mechanical cultivation
    • Mowing
    • Flame, heat, or electrical
    • Grazing livestock
    • Plastic or synthetic mulches that are removed at the end of the harvest
  • Disease problems controlled by:
    • Management practices to suppress the spread of disease
    • Application of non-synthetic biological, botanical or mineral inputs

The National List provides a list of allowed and prohibited substances for organically grown crops.

Organically Grown Meat, Poultry, Eggs and Dairy:
  • Livestock must be fed rations composed of agricultural products, pasture and forage that are organically produced and, if applicable, handled.
  • Prohibitions regarding animal feed include:
    • Administering of animal drugs in the absence of illness
    • Use of hormones to promote growth
    • Use of supplements in amounts above those for adequate nutrition
    • Use of mammal or poultry slaughter by-products for feed
    • Excessive use of feed additives
    • Routinely administering synthetic parasiticides
  • Producer must provide conditions to maintain and promote the health and welfare of livestock including:
    • Sufficient nutritional feed rations
    • Appropriate housing, pasture, sanitation conditions
    • Conditions allowing for exercise, freedom of movement and minimizing stress of the animals
    • Administration of veterinary care
  • Origin of livestock:
    • Organic livestock must be from livestock under continuous organic management from the last third of gestation or hatching
    • Organic poultry must be under continuous organic management beginning no later than the second day of life
    • Milk or milk products must be from animals that have been under continuous organic management beginning no later than 1 year prior to milk production.

Organic production is managed with the intent to integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices to promote the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and biodiversity. Practices help to protect the soil, groundwater, provide health promoting conditions for animals and ultimately help promote the health of the consumer.

The National List provides a list of allowed and prohibited substances for organically grown meat, poultry, eggs and dairy.

Organically Handled:

Mechanical or biological methods used to process an organically produced agricultural product for the purpose of retarding spoilage or otherwise preparing the agricultural product for market. This includes acceptable processing aids and ingredients, appropriate packaging materials and labeling, cleaning methods, waste disposal and pest management at processing facilities.

Why do we need new regulations of organic foods?

In 1990 the Congress mandated that the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) create a national legal definition of "organic" that would provide reliable, uniform, enforceable standards for any food bearing the term "organic". This regulation is intended to prevent fraud and support our right to know what's in our food and how it's grown and processed.

In accordance with this mandate, the USDA has adopted the first national standards regarding organic foods which took effect in April, 2001 and farms and others will have until October 2002 to fully comply to the new law for their products to be labeled as "Organic". State and private certifiers will be accredited by the USDA to ensure that food processors and growers comply to the new standards.

Starting in October 2002, you can be certain that organically labeled products in all the states will meet the federal standards. States can (and some already do) have stricter standards than the federal government, but some states do have weaker standards, a situation that will be corrected as of October 2002.

What is USDA certification?

Certification is the process by which the consumer is assured that a product marketed as "organic" is in compliance with production and handling requirements set forth by the new USDA, April 2002 regulations.

  • All producers of organic food, livestock, fiber crops and handlers or organic products must be certified. (except growers who gross less than $5000 and retailers)
  • Growers and handlers submit an Organic Farm Plan or an Organic Handling Plan, to a USDA accredited certifying agent detailing their growing and handling methods.
  • On-site inspections are conducted by certifying agents to verify submitted plans.
  • Methods and materials used in production must meet standards set in the new regulations.
  • Clear documentation of methods and materials must be kept
  • There must be a paper trail tracing of a product back to its production site enabling verification of production methods and materials.

How will "organic" foods be identified?

A new government seal will be introduced to identify "organic foods".

  • Label
  • Logo – Products labeled "100% organic" or "organic" can display the USDA logo.

What are the federally mandated labels that will identify "Organic" products according to the new standard?

100% organic: A raw or processed agricultural product that contains (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) 100% organically produced ingredients.

Organic: A raw or processed agricultural product that contains (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) not less than 95% organically produced or processed agricultural products.

Made with (specified) organic ingredients: The ingredients in a multi-ingredient agricultural product must contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients and handled according to law.

Organic ingredients listed individually: The ingredients in a multi-ingredient agricultural product containing less than 70% organically produced ingredients with each organically produced ingredient identified as such.

How will the term "Certified Organic" be used under the new regulations?

The idea behind these different uses of the term "organic" on foods is to make it clear and easy for you to be able to know the specific information about the organic ingredients just by reading the label. With the Federal "organic" label standards in effect, it is no longer necessary to see the term "Certified Organic" on a product to feel secure about it. That term was important before there were national standards for organic foods because it indicated that the product's organic authenticity was being monitored by an agency or impartial source. Since the USDA now sets, defines and regulates the use and meaning of the term "Organic" on all food labels, you can feel confident whenever the word appears on a label, because now the Federal government ensures that organic foods set under the Organic Foods Production Act provide true fulfillment for goals of the original organic growers who devoted great dedication and sacrifice in order to assure the safety and nutritional value of the foods you eat.

What does it mean if you see the word "transitional" on a food label?

Crops grown on land which is in transition to organic (during the first three years after switching from conventional farming, for instance, cannot be certified as organic, and by federal law, cannot be labeled as "transitional"). However, under state law, products can already be certified as "transitional" and will continue to be labeled as "transitional" as long as the state laws remain in effect.

What Foods Will Be Covered by the New Standard?

  • Fruits, Vegetables, Mushrooms, and Grains
  • Dairy products and Eggs
  • Livestock feed
  • Meats and Poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Honey

Standards for culinary herbs, pet food and food for minor animal species such as rabbits are not yet defined.

Are there any foods that will not be covered by the federal organic standards?

Yes. Although the Final Rule for federal organic standards, officially approved in April 2001, covers the vast majority of food types, standards for culinary herbs, pet food and food for minor animal species such as rabbits are not yet defined.

Can you give me some examples of organically labeled foods?

Yes. You might see the following types of labels on federally certified organic foods:

  • A label which reads "Organic Vegetable Soup" would be stating that ninety-five percent of the total ingredients of that soup (by weight) are certified as organic.
  • Alternately, a soup label might read "Vegetable Soup" and include the phrase "Made with Organic Vegetables" on the front panel, indicating that the primary ingredients are organic and make up more than seventy percent of the total ingredients by weight.
  • Another label might read simply "Vegetable Soup" and include the word organic to identify specific items in the ingredient listing panel - as in potatoes, carrots and organic kidney beans.

How will consumers identify organically produced foods until the regulation takes effect in October 2002?

During the transitional phase until the new regulation is implemented, there may be variations in the labeling of organic foods due to differences in labeling laws implemented by the various states.

Why Organic Foods are Better for Health

Can organic foods really improve my health?

Yes. Organically grown food is your best way of reducing exposure to toxins used in conventional agricultural practices. These toxins include not only pesticides, many of which have been federally classified as potential cancer-causing agents, but also heavy metals such as lead and mercury, and solvents like benzene and toluene. Minimizing exposure to these toxins is of major benefit to your health. Heavy metals damage nerve function, contributing to diseases such as multiple sclerosis and lowering IQ, and also block hemoglobin production, causing anemia. Solvents damage white cells, lowering the immune system’s ability to resist infections. In addition to significantly lessening your exposure to these health-robbing substances, organically grown foods have been shown to contain substantially higher levels of nutrients such as protein, vitamin C and many minerals.

How do organic foods benefit cellular health?

DNA: Eating organically grown foods may help to better sustain health since recent test tube animal research suggests that certain agricultural chemicals used in the conventional method of growing food may have the ability to cause genetic mutations that can lead to the development of cancer. One example is pentachlorophenol (PCP) that has been found to be able to cause DNA fragmentation in animals. Mitochondria: Eating organically grown foods may help to better promote cellular health since several agricultural chemicals used in the conventional growing of foods have been shown to have a negative effect upon mitochondrial function. These chemicals include paraquat, parathion, dinoseb and 2-4-D which have been found to affect the mitochondria and cellular energy production in a variety of ways including increasing membrane permeability, which exposes the mitochondria to damaging free radicals, inhibiting a process known as coupling that is integral to the efficient production of ATP. Cell Membrane: Since certain agricultural chemicals may damage the structure and function of the cellular membrane, eating organically grown foods can help to protect cellular health. The insecticide endosulfan and the herbicide paraquat have been shown to oxidize lipid molecules and therefore may damage the phospholipid component of the cellular membrane. In animal studies, pesticides such as chlopyrifos, endrin and fenthion have been shown to over stimulate enzymes involved in chemical signaling causing imbalance that has been linked to conditions such as atherosclerosis, psoriasis and inflammation.

How can organic foods contribute to children’s health?

The negative health effects of conventionally grown foods, and therefore the benefits of consuming organic foods, are not just limited to adults. In fact, many experts feel that organic foods may be of paramount importance in safeguarding the health of our children.

In two separate reports, both the Natural Resources Defense Council (1989) and the Environmental Working Group (1998) found that millions of American children are exposed to levels of pesticides through their food that surpass limits considered to be safe. Some of these pesticides are known to be neurotoxic, able to cause harm to the developing brain and nervous system. Additionally, some researchers feel that children and adolescents may be especially vulnerable to the cancer-causing effects of certain pesticides since the body is more sensitive to the impact of these materials during periods of high growth rates and breast development.

The concern for the effects of agricultural chemicals on children's health seems so evident that even the U.S. government has taken steps to protect our nation’s young. In 1996, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act requiring that all pesticides applied to foods be safe for infants and children.

Organic foods that are strictly controlled for substances harmful to health can play a major role in assuring the health of our children.

Are organic foods nutritionally superior to conventionally grown foods?

Yes, and significantly more. Proof of their superiority has been demonstrated in numerous studies. In 1998, a review of 34 studies comparing the nutritional content of organic versus non-organic food was published in the peer-reviewed, MEDLINE-indexed journal Alternative Therapies (Volume 4, No. 1, pgs. 58-69). In this review, organic food was found to have higher protein quality in all comparisons, higher levels of vitamin C in 58% of all studies, 5-20% higher mineral levels for all but two minerals. In some cases, the mineral levels were dramatically higher in organically-grown foods—as much as three times higher in one study involving iron content.

Organic foods may also contain more flavonoids than conventionally grown foods, according to Danish research published in the August 2003 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. In this study, 16 healthy non-smoking participants ranging in age from 21-35 years were given either a diet high in organically or conventionally grown fruits and vegetables for 22 days, after which they were switched over to the other diet for another 22 days. After both dietary trials, the researchers analyzed levels of flavonoids and other markers of antioxidant defenses in the food and in the participants’ blood and urine samples. Results indicated a significantly higher content of the flavonoid quercitin in the organic produce and in the subjects’ urine samples when on the organic produce diet, plus the subjects’ urinary levels of another flavonoid, kaempferol, were also much higher when on the organically grown compared to the conventionally grown diet.(October 4, 2003)

What substances do we avoid by eating organic food?

Over 3,000 high-risk toxins routinely present in the U.S. food supply are, by law, excluded from organic food, including: Pesticides: By far the largest group of toxins to be largely prohibited from organically grown foods are synthetic pesticides, which are found virtually everywhere else in the food supply. Several hundred different chemicals and several thousand brand-name pesticide products are legally used in commercial food production in the U.S. Act of 1992; the Environmental Protection Agency had classified 73 pesticides authorized for agricultural use as potential carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). And pesticides don’t just remain where they are applied. A 1996 study by the Environmental Working Group found 96% of all water samples taken from 748 towns across the U.S. contained the pesticide atrazine, and at least 20 different chemical pesticides are routinely present in municipal tap water across the U.S. Heavy metals: The toxic metals cadmium, lead, and mercury enter the food supply through industrial pollution of soil and groundwater and through machinery used in food processing and packaging. Cadmium, which can be concentrated in plant tissues at levels higher than those in soil, has been linked to lung, prostate and testicular cancers. Despite lead’s long-recognized serious adverse impact on health, especially that of young children, lead solder is still used to seal tin cans, imparting the lead residues found in many canned foods. Even low levels of lead are harmful and are associated with decreased intelligence, impaired neurobehavioral development, decreased stature and growth, and impaired hearing. Mercury is toxic to brain cells and has been linked to autism and Alzheimer's disease. Solvents: Used to dissolve food components and produce food additives, solvents are also virtually omnipresent in commercially processed food. Solvents, such as benzene and toluene have been linked to numerous cancers. Benzene, specifically, has been repeatedly associated with rheumatoid arthritis—an auto-immune condition involving pain and degeneration in the joints that affects over 2 million adults in the U.S.

Not only are these toxic substances harmful singly, but when combined, as they are in commercially grown and processed food, and in the human body where they accumulate, their effects have been found to be magnified as much as a 1,000-fold.

Why Organicically Grown Foods Are Better for the Health of Our Planet

What are the environmental benefits of organic farming over conventional farming methods?

Organically grown foods are cultivated using farming practices that work to preserve and protect the environment.

Most conventional farming methods used today adhere to a chemical-dependent model of agribusiness. Residues from conventional farming methods use toxic chemicals that remain in the soil, leach into groundwater, and frequently end up either on the skin or become internal constituents of commercially grown foods. The predominant use of this model has resulted in adversely affecting the earth's environment and the health of its inhabitants. These methods have adversely affected:

  • Soil quality
  • Water purity
  • Biodiversity
  • Safety and health of farm workers
  • Survival of small and family farms
  • Connection to the land
  • Taste and quality of foods

Organic farming is seen as the alternative to chemical farming. It is often inaccurately and simplistically described as farming without the use of pesticides. More accurately, it is a method of farming which partners with nature rather than altering or controlling natural processes which includes:

  • Absence of use of dangerous synthetic pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers
  • Improving soil quality
  • Conserving and keeping up water quality
  • Encouraging biodiversity
  • Minimalizing the health and occupational hazards to farm workers
  • Maintaining a restorative and sustainable biosystem.

Organic Farming Significantly Improves Soil Quality

Results recently published from a long-term study conducted by researchers at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA, show that organic farming practices help retain significantly more carbon in the soil, making the soil more productive, better able to retain water, and helping to prevent global warming.

Data gathered since 1981 from the Rodale Institute’s experimental farms in east-central Pennsylvania on organically grown corn and soybeans shows that the soil retained 15-28% more carbon than conventionally farmed soil, the equivalent of 1,000 pounds of carbon, or 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre foot of soil. According to Paul Hepperly, research manager for the Rodale Institute, converting the nation's 160 million acres of corn and soybeans would significantly reduce the carbon dioxide produced each year by the United States.

Some conventional growers have responded that the Rodale Institute’s numbers are too high to be believable, but Hepperly explains that his excellent carbon sequestration results are due to the fact that organic farming keeps a variety of crops in the field longer than conventional farming. "We grow diversified crops in the organic system, and actually that looks like it's more important than whether it's plowed or not," Hepperly said. "It's the extended cropping season and the crops grown through a longer portion of the season that seem to be very important for the trapping of carbon and nitrogen in the soil. They're retaining the nutrients and building the organic matter through a longer season." State Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff and Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty said their offices would build on the Rodale Institute research to help develop policies that would allow farmers to benefit from environmentally sound practices. (October 24, 2003)

How do conventional farming methods affect water quality?

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates pesticides (some which are known to be cancer causing) contaminate the groundwater in 38 states, polluting the primary source of drinking water for more than half the country's population.

What is sustainable agriculture?

Sustainable agriculture is farming practices that preserve and protect the future productivity and health of the environment. Sustainable agriculture is, however, a wider topic than organic farming. The way food is processed, packaged and transported may pose a threat to the environment, even when the food was cultivated organically. For example, pretzels may be organic—meaning 95% of their ingredients are organically grown—but have been produced from highly refined flour processed using energy-wasting machinery, packaged in non-recyclable plastic, and shipped around the world using large amounts of fossil fuel. Growing foods organically is, therefore, only the first step in achieving sustainable agriculture. Most environmentalists and ecologists and many individuals involved in the production of organic foods believe that sustainable agriculture is necessary if we are to reach the long-term goals of personal health and ecological balance.

In 1988 the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization adopted the following official definition of Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development:

Sustainable development (in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors) should conserve land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable.

In the 1990 Farm Bill, the U.S. Congress defined sustainable agriculture as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrates, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

In 1992, during the UN Conference on Environment and Development, a number of non-governmental organizations (NGO) drafted their own Sustainable Agriculture Treaty which states:

Sustainable Agriculture is a model of social and economic organization based on equitable and participatory vision of development which recognizes the environment and natural resources as the foundation of economic activity. Agriculture is sustainable when it is ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just, culturally appropriate and based on a holistic scientific approach.

Sustainable Agriculture preserves biodiversity, maintains soil, fertility and water purity, conserves and improves the chemical, physical and biological qualities of the soil, recycles natural resources and conserves energy.

Sustainable Agriculture uses locally available renewable resources, appropriate and affordable technologies, and minimizes the use of external and purchased inputs, thereby increasing local independence and self sufficiency and insuring a source of stable income for peasants, family small farmers and rural communities, and integrates humans with their environment. Sustainable Agriculture respects the ecological principles of diversity and interdependence and uses the insights of modern science to improve rather than displace the traditional wisdom accumulated over centuries by innumerable farmers around the world.

How to Understand the New Regulation of Organic Foods

Can you give me more details about federal regulation of organic farming?

Yes. Most of these details are presented in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, as discussed below.

What was the Organic Foods Production Act?

The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was Title XXI of the 1990 Farm Bill. Its purpose was to establish national standards for the production and handling of foods labeled as organic.

Previously, private and State agencies had been certifying organic practices, but there was no uniformity in standards and therefore no guarantee that organic meant the same thing from state to state, or even locally from certifier to certifier. National standards for organic products were desired by both producers and consumers to clear up this confusion in the marketplace and to protect against mislabeling or fraud.

OFPA allows for state standards that are more restrictive than the federal standards, but they must be approved by the USDA. In addition, states cannot discriminate against out-of-state products that meet the federal standards.

What is the National Organic Program?

OFPA authorized the formation of a National Organic Program (NOP) to establish organic standards, and to require and oversee mandatory certification of organic production. The NOP will be implemented once the Final Rules are signed by the Secretary of Agriculture. The NOP, by statute, is administered by State and private organizations rather than by the Federal government. The USDA's role is to act as overseer of the Program.

While the NOP has required federal funding during its developmental stages, it is expected that, as with similar USDA programs, future costs will be covered by user fees paid by certifying agencies.

Currently, fees for certification are paid by growers and processors to private or state certifying agencies.

What is the National Organic Standards Board?

Under the Act, a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was created to advise the Secretary of Agriculture in setting the standards on which the USDA's National Organic Program will be based.

The NOSB wanted their recommendations to be based on industry consensus. They asked for and received an unprecedented amount of public input from farmers, businesses and consumers during every step of their decision-making process. After considering the recommendations of the NOSB, the Secretary has final authority in determining the regulations. Appointments to the NOSB are made by the Secretary of Agriculture for five year terms, and must include:

Four farmers, two handlers/processors, one retailer, one scientist (with expertise in toxicology, ecology or biochemistry), three consumer/public interest advocates, three environmentalists.

In addition to making recommendations on the national standards, the NOSB is authorized to convene Technical Advisory Panels to advise on materials to be included on a National List of materials allowed for use in organic production.

Who actually gets certified in the organic certification process?

With two exceptions (listed below), everyone who wants to sell products labeled as organic must be certified. This includes producers of organic livestock, food and fiber crops, and handlers of organic products.

A handler is any operation that receives, processes, packages, or stores agricultural products. Some examples: a processing company that buys organic tomatoes and makes canned spaghetti sauce; any distributor who substantially transforms, repacks or re-labels organic agricultural products. This last distinction is meant to exclude brokering, warehousing or trucking operations that merely store or move finished processed products from place to place without altering them in any way.

Is anyone exempt from certification?

Yes. Growers who gross less than $5,000 annually are exempt from certification. The NOSB recommends that these growers sign a declaration (available from certifying agencies) stating that they understand and are in compliance with the Act, and that they have a written Organic Farm Plan (see below), which can be made available to the public upon request. The NOSB further recommends that growers falling under this Small Farm Exemption may not use the term certified organic when marketing their crops, and may market through direct sales only (i.e., farm stands, farmers' markets, or direct sales to a retailer).

At present, retailers aren't required to be certified. The NOSB, however, recommends certification for retailers that engage in activities that qualify them as handlers. (An example: repacking bulk products such as dry beans or grain.)

How does the certification process actually work?

A grower or handler seeking organic certification submits an Organic Farm Plan or an Organic Handling Plan to a USDA-accredited private or state certification program. The Organic Plan must detail all current growing or handling methods and any materials that will be used. The Plan also covers future intentions and improvements to all areas of production.

Even growers or harvesters of organic wild crops, such as fiddlehead ferns, must develop a Plan showing that harvesting practices will not be destructive to the environment or to the future productivity of the crop.

Five-year records must be kept of all management practices and materials used in organic production.

In addition to assessing the Organic Plan, the certification agency performs annual on-site inspections of each farm or handling operation participating in its program. Certification is then either awarded or denied. User fees are collected from each grower or handler to cover the cost of the certification program.

What if a farm only wants to be part organic?

The Act does allow for only part of a farm or handling operation to be certified. The organic and conventional parts of the operation must be kept separate - whether by physical boundaries and buffer zones, in the case of a farm, or by proper cleaning and management of facilities and machinery, in the case of a handler.

Separate records must be kept for each part of a split operation. This provision can be seen as a short-term compromise. The NOSB's intent is to encourage conversion to 100% certified organic production.

What are the basic organic standards for plant crops?

Organically produced crops must be grown on land which has been free of prohibited substances for three years prior to harvest. Crops grown on land which is in transition to organic (during the first three years after switching from conventional farming, for instance) cannot be labeled as organic. The Act makes no provision for a USDA-sanctioned transitional label.

The Act covers organic agricultural methods and materials in great detail, including managing soil fertility, when and how manure may be applied to crops, crop rotation, and composting. Compost ingredients recommended by the NOSB include crop residues, crop waste from food processing operations, animal manures, yard waste from private or municipal sources, or other vegetable by-products. The NOSB recommends prohibiting municipal solid waste compost and sewage sludge compost, and the use of any prohibited material as a compost ingredient. The NOSB also recommends that all ingredients must be documented.

Prevention is considered a grower's first approach to pest management, but the Act establishes a National List of acceptable and prohibited materials, which includes pest control treatments as well as other agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and seed treatments.

The NOSB recommends that all agricultural inputs be evaluated as to their long- term affect on the environment and not simply on whether they are synthetic or natural.

The following highlights address some of the questions most frequently asked about the NOSB Recommendations for Organic Crop Production Standards.

Pesticide/Fertilizer Drift

Organic farmers are responsible for establishing adequate buffer zones or barriers to protect against pesticide or fertilizer drift from neighboring conventional farms. Organic crops that have been contaminated in this way cannot be sold or labeled as organic, or fed to organic livestock.

Certifying agents are responsible for verifying such incidents, and for deciding when products from the area may again be sold as organic. The certifier may also decide to implement pre-harvest residue testing.

Emergency Pest Eradication Programs

The NOSB recommends that local, state and federal agencies avoid treating certified organic farms during emergency pest eradication programs, and that they seek alternatives to chemical pest control methods on these farms. Organic growers are responsible for registering their farms with the appropriate state and local agencies to facilitate this.

The NOSB also recommends that certified organic farms be compensated for damages resulting from emergency pest eradication programs.

Residue Testing

Although the NOSB feels strongly that residue standards do not define organic food, it recommends that organic products shall not contain pesticide residues in excess of the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) action level or 5% of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) tolerance. The NOSB proposes the following residue testing system:

  1. National monitoring through the Federal Regulatory Monitoring program of at least one percent (1%) of organic fresh produce and processed product samples.
  2. State monitoring by those states which conduct pesticide residue programs.
  3. Local monitoring by certification agencies when suspicions of contamination arise, or for a three year period following an emergency spray program, or to follow up on positive results from federal, state or local government testing, or in response to complaints.

What are the basic organic standards for livestock (animals)?

Quite simply, organic livestock must be fed organic feed.

The NOSB recommends that conventional feed be allowed only if the organic feed supply has been compromised by a national, state or local weather emergency, or by fire or flood on an organic farm.

Growth promoters and hormones, and plastic pellets for roughage in feed are prohibited. Synthetic vitamins and minerals are allowed.

Organic Livestock Production

Standards for organic livestock production are meant to assure both an organic product to the consumer and living conditions for farm animals that limit stress and promote good health. They address substances used in health care and feeding, as well as herd or flock management and housing.

Livestock includes cattle, sheep, goats, swine, poultry, fish, wild or domesticated game and horses raised for slaughter or used as draft animals. There are even standards for organic bee-keeping.

Regardless of whether they're raised as breeding stock, as dairy animals, or for slaughter, all livestock is covered by the Act.

The following highlights address some of the questions most frequently asked about the NOSB Recommendations for Organic Livestock Standards.

Housing and Health Care for Organic Livestock

Healthy living conditions and attentive care are considered first steps in the prevention of illness. Therefore, animals must not be overcrowded, and must be allowed periodic access to the outdoors and direct sunlight.

Antibiotics, wormers and other medications may not be used routinely as preventative measures. See The National List for specific details on medications recommended by the NOSB for use in organic livestock health care.

Recordkeeping for Organic Livestock

Records must be kept on all feeding and health care practices for each animal or flock, and there must be a verifiable audit trail to trace any animal or flock back to the farm.

Are there basic organic standards for processing and handling?

Yes. Standards for the processing, handling and labeling of organic products cover all steps in the process from receiving organic raw materials, acceptable processing aids and ingredients, appropriate packaging materials and labeling, to cleaning methods, waste disposal and pest management at processing facilities.

The following highlights address some of the questions most frequently asked about the NOSB Recommendations for Organic Processing, Handling & Labeling Standards.

Processing Additives

The following additives are not allowed in organic processing: sulfites, nitrates or nitrites; any ingredient known to contain higher levels of heavy metals or toxic residues than permitted by federal regulation; and any non-agricultural ingredient that is not organically produced unless it is designated as acceptable on The National List.

Packaging Materials

Organic products cannot be packaged in materials, storage containers or bins that contain synthetic fungicides, preservatives or fumigants. The reuse of containers that have been in contact with any prohibited substance is not allowed.

Imported Products

Imported products may be labeled as organically produced if the Secretary of Agriculture determines that they have been produced and handled under an organic program that meets or exceeds the requirements of the USDA's National Organic Program.

What is the National List, and why has it been so controversial?

The National List provides a complete account of all substances permitted and prohibited in the production of organic food. Its purpose is to make clear which materials can and cannot be used in organic production, processing and handling in the United States. You can view the National List directly by visiting the following website: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/nop2000/Final%20Rule/regtext/reg-natlist.htm

Who defines the National List?

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is responsible for recommending to the Secretary of Agriculture which materials will be on the list. This process began in 1995, when the NOSB completed a massive review of the materials in use by organic producers, and those recommendations became the base for the first draft of the National List.

The procedure is ongoing, however, and many manufacturers and processors seek to add new substances to the National List that are currently prohibited in organic food production. While the NOSB includes five separate committees, including committees on livestock, food processing, crops and materials, it is the materials committee that must review the most constant supply of petitions asking for permission to use currently prohibited substances in the production of organically-certified foods. The committee continues to review these petitions on a quarterly basis. For example, in its March 2001 quarterly meeting, the materials committee was asked to recommend use of hydroxyquinoline sulfate and polaxalene in livestock husbandry, and cyclohexylamine, morpholine, and octadecylamine in plant food processing.

Once the NOSB makes a recommendation, the Secretary of Agriculture makes the final determination. A Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) gathers and evaluates the scientific data and makes recommendations to the board based on seven review criteria:

  1. Effect on human health.
  2. Effect on the farm ecosystem.
  3. Toxicity and mode of action.
  4. Availability of gentler alternatives.
  5. Probability of environmental contamination during manufacture, use and disposal.
  6. Potential for interactions with other materials used.
  7. Overall compatibility with a system of sustainable agriculture.

How is The National List structured?

The NOSB recommended that the National List be divided into three parts:

  1. Acceptable synthetic production materials;
  2. Prohibited natural production materials;
  3. Acceptable non-agricultural, non-synthetic processing aids.

These lists contain the exceptions to the basic understanding within the organic industry that all organically grown and handled foods are produced with solely natural materials.

This may seem like an unusual structure; however, it avoids the problem of trying to list every natural material that organic growers or processors might use. Such a list might neglect to mention all of the local resources available in a given region.

Why are there exceptions?

Organic production systems encourage a healthy environment with as few inputs as possible. The NOSB recommends that cultural, biological and other management tools be sought to replace material inputs - whether synthetic or natural.

Congress, in passing the OFPA, recognized that it will take time for organic producers and handlers to achieve the long term goals expressed in the Act. The National List was meant to reflect realistic organic practices and to take into account current obstacles to ideal organic production. Therefore, some synthetics are allowed if the review process shows that they are:

  1. Not harmful to human health or the environment.
  2. Necessary to production because of unavailability of natural products.
  3. Consistent with organic ideals.

Likewise, the law provides for prohibition of natural materials that may be harmful to human health or the environment and inconsistent with organic ideals.

Following are some of the questions most frequently asked about the materials recommended by the NOSB for inclusion on The National List.

Why are there no brand names on The List?

The National List applies only to generic materials that are active ingredients and does not apply directly to brand name products. The complexity of brand name product formulations, the changeable nature of what is on the marketplace at any given time, and manufacturer's concerns over confidentiality made this approach the most viable.

Do organic farmers use any pesticides or pest control products?

Yes. Sometimes, organic farmers find that they need to use pest control products as part of an ecological farm plan. However, they may only use products included as acceptable in the National List.

When would an organic grower need to use a pesticide or pest control product?

In a natural ecosystem, predators keep plant pests in check, while diseases strike individual plants or may even wipe out a species. Nature constantly works to correct imbalances. Organic farmers also strive for such a balance, but farming interferes with the native mix of plants and animals, and so farmers must contend with the problems that arise. They must also meet customer expectations of quality - and do all of this in an economic fashion. The allowed pesticides are, therefore, sometimes used as a corrective measure when cultural methods of pest control have failed.

Organic farmers look for pesticides that target their pest specifically while impacting the ecosystem as little as possible. For example, if a field of tomatoes has attracted a large population of tomato hornworms, a natural toxin can be sprayed which harms only leaf-eating caterpillars. If aphids are the problem, a light petroleum oil spray could be used to suffocate these soft-bodied insects without harming their predators.

Next season, the farmer might change his fertility plan or use a natural repellent such as a garlic or cayenne spray to make the crop less attractive, use crop covers and rotations to encourage beneficial predators, or use traps and visual inspection to catch the problem earlier.

What is the difference between IPM and organic production?

IPM, or Integrated Pest Management, differs from organic production in three ways. First, IPM only addresses pest control and not fertility. Second, IPM focuses on reducing chemical sprays, but has no compunction about using them when indicators point to a need. Third, IPM allows for the use of any synthetic pesticide as a last resort measure, rather than restricting to natural and least toxic materials.

What synthetic materials does the NOSB recommend for use in crop production?

Petroleum oil and soaps are allowed for insect control because of their benign nature to people and the environment. They also do little harm to beneficial insects.

Pheromones are chemicals identical to those given off by insects in locating food or mates. They are used in small quantities to lure pests to traps in the field, or to confuse them so that they won't mate.

Pheromones have been revolutionary throughout agriculture in reducing pesticide usage.

Copper and sulfur compounds can stop plant diseases that could destroy entire crops. These metallic compounds mechanically kill fungus spores and have been in use for centuries. Other disease control practices include variety and site selection, proper plant spacing, and improved irrigation methods.

Research is leading to biological controls, but in the meantime, copper and sulfur are allowed for fungus control, along with two antibiotics for virus control on the leaf surface of plants.

Cleaning compounds, specifically alcohol and bleach, are recommended by the NOSB for inclusion in the National List for use in disinfecting irrigation systems and food contact surfaces.

Micronutrient fertilizers are usually synthetic, but are needed in very small amounts. While most natural fertilizers will supply adequate micronutrients, when soil testing shows that micronutrients are needed, they are allowed to balance fertility. Balanced, fertile soil will grow crops with the fewest pest problems and the most nutrition.

Plastic mulch and covers are allowed for weed, insect, and frost protection. Plastics are synthetic, but in this use are not disrupting the natural balance and actually reduce the need for pesticides. They must be removed from the field at the end of each season and may not be plowed in or allowed to decompose.

Liquid fish emulsion also appears on the list of approved synthetics because of added processing aids.

Small quantities of pH adjusters are added to keep the product stable and prevent fermentation in storage.

What are some of the natural substances that the NOSB recommends be prohibited?

Arsenic for insect control, and strychnine for rodent control are some of the few natural materials prohibited in organic production. Their high toxicity and concern about residues has warranted this exclusion. Restrictions have also been placed on the use of other natural materials because they disrupt the ecological balance or are of moderate natural toxicity.

The botanical pest controls Rotenone, Pyrethrum, Ryania, Sabadilla, Neem and Tobacco Dust are derived from plants. Their use is recommended only when primary methods of defense have failed.

This is because they are broad spectrum in action and may affect not only the target pest, but also other insects they contact. These materials are registered with the EPA and have undergone safety testing, falling into EPA's least toxic category. Botanicals are preferred in organic production to even the least toxic synthetic pesticides because botanicals break down quickly into common natural compounds.

An important measure of the safety of these plant-derived materials is their known effects based on historical use for the last 3,000 years.

Sodium nitrate (commonly known as Chilean nitrate) is also a restricted material. Its high salt content may disrupt soil biology, and it is used to feed the plant directly rather than increasing overall soil fertility. While direct feeding may be necessary in certain situations, organic producers should not rely too heavily on this method of fertilizing. Use of sodium nitrate is restricted to a small percent of the total nitrogen requirement of the crop, thus encouraging growers to build soil fertility with less soluble materials that have a lower impact on soil biology.

Why are antibiotics allowed in organic livestock production?

Organic feed, good living conditions and attentive care are usually enough to support animals without medication. However, animals do get sick, and it would be contrary to the underlying values of organic production to let an animal suffer or die when treatment is available. The NOSB therefore recommends that antibiotics be allowed only for the treatment of a sick animal, not as a growth promoter or preventive measure, and never on a routine basis. If an animal intended for slaughter must be given antibiotics, it can no longer be considered organic. If a breeding animal, dairy cow, or laying hen must be given antibiotics, the NOSB recommends it be taken out of the organic production system for an appropriate withdrawal period.

What other drugs does the NOSB recommend for livestock health care?

Synthetic wormers are recommended as allowed for use in much the same way as antibiotics, to prevent the suffering or death of an animal. However, they cannot be used routinely. The producer must have a plan in place to prevent worm infestation. Without such a plan, the producer cannot be certified.

Other recommended allowed synthetics in livestock production include vitamins and trace minerals to balance nutritional requirements, aspirin for inflammation, electrolytes for dehydration, local anesthetics with appropriate withdrawal periods, and milk replacers when fresh milk is not available.

Why are there non-organic ingredients in some organic food?

If you were to make organic cookies at home you would naturally use organic flour, oil, eggs, raisins, etc. But what about the salt and baking soda? Because they are non-agricultural products, neither of these ingredients meets the definition of organic. Processors of many kinds of organic foods face the same dilemma. In addition, nutritional fortification is sometimes required by regulation or professional guidelines, but is not available in natural form.

Thus the NOSB recommends that the National List include synthetic processing aids and natural products such as minerals that are not agricultural. For the finished food to be called organic, these ingredients may not comprise more than 5% of the total product, by weight.

What are some of the non-organic ingredients recommended by the NOSB?

Recommended non-synthetic ingredients include baking soda as a leavener, some calcium compounds, pectin for jelling, and lecithin for consistency. Carrageenan and agar-agar are seaweed products not available in certified organic form, but are recommended as allowed materials for thickening and smooth consistency. Nitrogen and oxygen are recommended as allowed processing aids with restrictions as to source. The NOSB also recommends that bacterial enzymes, cultures and yeast be allowed unless produced from gene splicing.

Recommended synthetic ingredients include the synthesized version of carbon dioxide (a naturally occurring gas) for use in carbonation and pest control, ferrous sulfate and other vitamins and minerals for nutritional fortification, and bleach for cleaning surfaces. The use of ethylene gas, a processed version of the gas naturally produced by fruits for ripening, is recommended by the NOSB only for bananas, since the travel required to get them to market often precludes ripening on the tree.

Synthetic magnesium chloride is available for making tofu, as the FDA restricts the natural form due to health hazards from impurities.

Does the Organic Foods Production Act have provisions for enforcement and penalties for regulatory violation?

Yes. There are provisions and penalties for both producers and certifiers.

Mislabeling and False Statements

Any person who knowingly mislabels a product as organic can be fined a maximum of $10,000 and may be disbarred from the Organic Program for five years. Persons who make false statements to the Secretary of Agriculture, a state official or a certifying agent are subject to penalties under Federal law, and may be disbarred from the program for five years.

Violations by Certifying Agencies

A certifying agency that violates the provisions of the program or falsely or negligently certifies any operation shall lose accreditation and shall not be eligible for re-accreditation for three years.

(Note: The previous summary of the Organic Foods Production Act was based largely on a report produced by Organic Harvest, the educational program of the Organic Trade Association P.O. Box 1078, Greenfield, MA 01302.)

Are there any foods that will not be covered by the federal organic standards?

Yes. Although the Final Rule for federal organic standards, officially approved in April 2001, covers the vast majority of food types, standards for culinary herbs, pet food and food for minor animal species such as rabbits are not yet defined.

Other Questions About Organic Foods

Do organic foods taste better?

Although no formal research has been conducted, some people, including many chefs, believe organic foods have better taste, color and flavor. They speculate that this is because organic farming, which starts with the nourishment of the soil, leads to the nourishment of the plants and ultimately to our taste buds. The use of synthetic nitrate fertilizers in non-organic food crops results in nitrate binding to water, which makes these crops look better but lessens their flavor. The superior taste of organic foods leads many chefs to choose them for their kitchens. A survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association found that 50% of restaurants with a per-person dinner check of $25 or more now offer organic items on their menus.

Why do organic foods cost more?

Organic food production is much more labor intensive. In addition, conventionally grown foods are often produced under subsidies from the government and chemical companies. Although priced lower at the grocery store, this cheap food is produced at the expense of the environment and individual health, hidden costs, which will eventually have to be repaid in environmental cleanup and disease costs.

How do you buy organic foods more inexpensively?

  • Buy locally
  • Buy seasonally
  • Buy in bulk
  • Take advantage of coupons and sales

Why should we buy organic foods?

Excerpt from the 1997 National Organic Directory:

  1. Health of the soil
  2. Safety of the water supply
  3. Preservation of a family farm lifestyle
  4. Health of farm workers
  5. Nutrition, flavor and quality
  6. Health investment.

What is the dirty dozen?

In 1995, the Environmental Working Group identified foods in the conventional, non-organic food supply that contained the highest number of pesticide residues. The worst offenders, which were nicknamed the "dirty dozen," included:

  • Strawberries
  • Celery
  • Green and red bell peppers
  • Apples
  • Spinach
  • Apricots
  • U.S. grown cherries
  • Green beans
  • Peaches
  • Grapes from Chile
  • Mexican grown cantaloupe
  • Cucumbers

How popular are organic foods?

Organic foods have been growing in popularity, not only in the United States, but worldwide. Organic sales in the U.S. reached $5.5 billion in 2000. A similar figure for European countries of $5.5 billion is expected to increase more than tenfold to a level of $58 billion by 2006. Approximately 6,000 certified organic farms currently exist in the United States, with 15,000 more farms running organic trials. Over the next five years, farms experimenting with organic crop production are expected to increase by about 12% or 700 farms per year.

What is the history of organic foods?

Long before the federal government got involved in the regulation of organic foods, dozens of states had passed organic laws of their own. Today, 45 out of the 50 states have their own organic laws. And even before state laws were established, concerned farmers set up voluntary organic certification systems. The first organization in the country to certify organic farms was CCOF, California Certified Organic Farmers, over twenty years ago.

Since states continue to uphold their own organic regulations the label on an organically grown food may contain other phrases besides "100% Organic" and "Made with Organic Ingredients". The most important of these phrases are "Certified Organic" and "Transitional Organic". In states that allow the label, "Certified Organic" you can be sure that 100% of the food ingredients were produced organically. In states where the label says "Transitional Organic," you can be sure the food's producers are making an effort to fully comply with state standards but are simply not there yet – it takes time for all prohibited substances to become absent from the soil, even though these substances are no longer being used in the cultivation process.

Since overall food sales in the United States reached $384 billion in 1999, organic food sales still represented only 1.4% of all money spent on food. Because the majority of food is not produced organically, organic regulations have often come under pressure to lower their standard to accommodate non-organic techniques. This pressure was particularly strong in the mid 1990's when a recommendation was made to allow use of sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering in organically-certified foods. This recommendation was rejected, partially in response to more than 250,000 letters received by the USDA in opposition to these regulatory changes.

The most controversial aspect of the OFPA continues to be the National List. This list of substances permitted and prohibited in organic food production undergoes quarterly review by a government board called the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB). T


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This page was updated on: 2004-11-18 22:11:53
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation