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Everything You 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 is primarily a labeling term that is used on a wide variety of foods that have been produced through methods and practices approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its National Organics Program (NOP). Organic is also one of the single best steps you can take to safeguard the quality of your food. In many cases, organic is also good step for the environment.

Many people think about "organic" as meaning "earth friendly." Even though this meaning often holds true, it doesn't always. Organic regulations focus on farming practices and food production steps that can be monitored and controlled to decrease risk of food contamination and improve food quality. But for the most part, organic regulations simply do not try to address more complicated issues involving the earth and sustainability.

Here is one simple example of the difference between the focus of organic regulations and a focus on sustainability. In the U.S., we currently plant about 92 million acres of corn, 78 million acres of soybeans, and 57 million acres of wheat. Ecologists view these 227 million acres and the way they are planted as non-sustainable. Many factors combine to make our current planting of corn and soybeans and wheat non-sustainable. Included are factors like natural water cycles and natural mineral cycles in North America and their inability to accommodate the 227 million acres of these three crops as currently cultivated. The USDA's organics program does not address or evaluate the sustainability of these crop acres. The program limits its focus to the farming steps that would be needed in order for all 227 million acres of corn and soybeans and wheat to be certified as organic. For example, USDA organic guidelines would prohibit use of genetic engineering, fertilization with sewage sludge, and irradiation on any of these acres. Such changes would most likely improve the quality of the crops and the quality of the land. But the practice of planting 227 million acres with these three crops would still be non-sustainable, and this non-sustainability would not matter from the USDA's perspective. Provided that USDA organic requirements were met, these crops would be labeled organic regardless of their sustainability. The bottom line here is simple: organic food production is better for the environment and better for our health than conventional food production methods, but important earth-related questions like sustainability are not typically addressed in organic regulations and might not be furthered by adoption of organic standards.

Of special importance in organics are the "big three." Genetic engineering, irradiation, and sewage sludge are sometimes referred to as "the big three" by commentators on the National Organics Program, since they are practices that can have an especially problematic impact on health and the environment. The "big three" have always been - and are still - prohibited by organic regulations. Along with prohibition of these three practices, however, a wide variety of other practices are prohibited in production of organic food. For example, most synthetic chemicals (including most synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers) are prohibited by organic regulations. All off these prohibitions in organic food production are important. They help to safeguard the quality of our food and to reduce our health risk from food contaminants.

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 standards of April 2001, which have been fully enforced since October 2002. These standards prohibit the used of:

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

How to understand different uses 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 prevent contamination of crops, soil or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms or heavy metals.

Managament methods may include:

  • Use of crop rotation
  • Use of composted animal manure with specified carbon to nitrogen ratios and temperature readings.
  • Use of uncomposted plant materials

Seeds, seedlings and planting stock used for crops must be organically grown except as provided in the law

Crop-related pest problems must be 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 must be 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 must be 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 did we need regulation of organic foods?

More than two decades ago, when the U.S. Congress passed its 1990 Farm Bill, a congressional mandate was included in the bill (Title 21) instructing the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create a national legal definition of "organic" that would provide reliable, uniform, and enforceable standards for any food bearing the term "organic."

The development of organic standards was designed to provide consumers with a food labeling process that they could trust to reflect high-quality standards in food production.

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 in USDA regulations.

All producers of organic food, livestock, and fiber crops as well as 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 a product back to its production site, enabling verification of production methods and materials.

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 in USDA regulations.

How are organic foods identified?

Organic foods can be identified through 4 different types of label information.

Least common in the marketplace, but most reliable, is the claim "100% organic" on the front of any certified organic food. This claim requires all ingredients in the food (without except) to be produced in compliance with organic regulations.

Much more common in the marketplace is the presence of the USDA organic logo on the front of a certified organic food. This USDA logo often appears in green as pictured below:

Certified organic foods bearing the USDA logo must contain at least 95% (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) approved ingredients. Up to 5% of the food may contain prohibited ingredients, if those ingredients are not available in organic form. For example, an ingredient containing a synthetic pesticide residue may be included in a certified organic food bearing the USDA logo, as long as that ingredient could not be obtained by the manufacturer in organic form and as long as the weight of the ingredient did not exceed 5% of the total weight of the product (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt). However, there is one important caveat to this "5%" rule for certified organic foods bearing the USDA logo: even in the 5% "non-organic" portion of the food, ingredients are not allowed to be genetically engineered, fertilized with sewage sludge, or irradiated.

A third way to identify certified organic foods is through "Made With" labeling claims on the front of the packaging. For example, a certified organic pasta sauce may say "Made with Organic Tomatoes" on the front of the packaging. In the case of "Made With" claims, at least 70% of all ingredients (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) must be in compliance with all organic regulations. As such, 30% of ingredients may contain prohibited ingredients, provided that those ingredients are not available in organic form. Just like use of the organic logo, however, there is one important caveat to this "30%" rule for certified organic foods showing "Made With" claims: even in the 30% "non-organic" portion of the food, ingredients are not allowed to be genetically engineered, fertilized with sewage sludge, or irradiated.

A final way to identify certified organic foods is through individual ingredient entries on the Ingredients List on the side or back of the packaging. If a food contains less than 70% of its ingredients (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) as organic, no labeling claims are permitted on the front of the packaging. However, individual organic ingredients that comply with USDA regulations may be listed on the side or back of the packaging in the product's Ingredients List.

In summary, your best bet for selecting certified organic foods is to choose foods that state "100% Organic" on the front of the packaging. If you are purchasing whole fruits and vegetables in the produce section of the grocery and the foods are labeled as organic, that's just as good! These whole fruits and vegetables are simply themselves and have no additional ingredients from a labeling standpoint. It is worth pointing out, however, that certain waxes are permitted in the handling of certified organic fruits and vegetables including shellac (from the lac beetle) and carnauba wax (from carnauba palm). It's also worth pointing out that frozen or canned fruits and vegetables that have been certified as organic may contain added ingredients. If you are using the USDA's organic logo to identify these foods as organic, you will need to check the Ingredient List on the packaging to determine if added ingredients are present, and if any of these added ingredients are non-organic and simply fall into the "5%" non-organic category that logo-bearing foods are allowed to have under USDA regulations.

Critics of organic labeling sometimes point to these "5%" and "30%" rules as "loopholes" in the organic certification process, and they sometimes view these labeling standards as regulations that work to undermine the credibility of certified organic foods. Supporters of organic labeling point to the need for government to be realistic about food manufacturing and constraints on growers and manufacturers of food. At the World's Healthiest Foods, we believe that both sides make good points. However, as consumers, each of us has the ability - and perhaps also the responsibility - to ask questions about the quality of food, and to bring our own standards to bear on the food that we eat.

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

Crops grown on land that 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 are covered under current organic standards?

  • Fruits and Vegetables, including Mushrooms
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and Seeds
  • Dairy Products and Eggs
  • Livestock Feed
  • Meats and Poultry

One major group of foods - seafoods - are not currently covered within the regulations. The National Organics Standards Board has officially adopted recommendations for seafood (including both finfish and mollusks like oysters, clams, mussels and scallops), but these recommendations have not been added to the National List and implemented into the law as official USDA regulations.

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

Yes. As mentioned above, seafood is a major exception to the organic regulations and has yet to be legally certified by the USDA. Honey is also a food not directly regulated by the USDA. Certified organic honey has been a confusing issue for consumers, since the USDA allows its official organic logo to be placed on honey that has been certified as organic by other agencies.

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 that reads "100% Organic Vegetable Soup" would be stating that all of the ingredients in the soup are certified as organic.
  • Alternately, a soup label that reads "Vegetable Soup" and includes the phrase "Made with Organic Carrots and Tomatoes"" on the front panel would be indicating that the carrots and tomatoes were organic and that a minimum of 70% of all ingredients in the soup (by weight, excluding water and salt) were organic. Up to 30% of the other ingredients might be non-organic (depending on the availability of organic ingredients at the time of manufacture), but none of those ingredients could be genetically engineered, irradiated, or fertilized with sewage sludge.
  • Another label might read simply "Vegetable Soup" and include the word "organic" only alongside individual items found on the Ingredients List on the side or back of the packaging. For example, the Ingredients List might read: water, potatoes, carrots and organic kidney beans. In this case, you would know that the potatoes and carrots were not produced organically and that the non-organic ingredients accounted for more than 30% of the weight of the soup (excluding water and salt).

Why Organic Foods are Better for Health

Can organic foods really improve my health?

Yes. Consumption of organically grown food is a great way to reduce your exposure to contaminants commonly found in foods that have been grown using conventional agricultural practices. These contaminants may include not only pesticides - many of which have been 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 potential toxins is an important benefit for your health. Heavy metals can damage nerve function, contributing to diseases such as multiple sclerosis, and interfere with hemoglobin production in a way that increases risk of anemia. Solvents can damage white blood cell function and lower the immune system's ability to resist infections.

In addition to lessening your exposure to these potentially harmful substances, organically grown foods, on average, contain higher levels of many nutrients including vitamins and minerals.

These two aspects of the organic consumption - decreased intake of contaminants and increased intake of nutrients - have both been topics of controversy in research. While we understand the reasons for this controversy, we are also firmly convinced that organically grown foods contain significantly fewer contaminants than their conventionally grown counterparts, as well as significantly richer nutrient content.

Let's take the contamination aspect first. One of the largest scale studies, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on more than 94,000 food samples, found at least one pesticide residue on approximately 75% of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, in comparison to approximately 25% of organically grown vegetables. Almost half of the pesticide residues found on organically grown vegetables involved DDT or its metabolites. (DDT is a pesticide that has been banned for 40 years for use on food, but because it can be very persistent in the environment, it often shows up in foods decades later.) When DDT and related pesticides were excluded from the results, the percentage of organically grown foods with pesticide residues dropped to about 13%. Studies have been conducted in countries throughout Europe and the Mediterranean comparing one or two specific, organically grown foods to their conventional counterparts, and the results have consistently shown lower contaminant levels in the organically grown foods.

With respect to nutrient content, organically grown fruits and vegetables - on average - appear to contain about 15% higher levels of nutrients than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. Results in this area have not always been consistent, however, and in some cases, conventionally grown fruits and/or vegetables have been analyzed as having higher nutrient levels than organically grown vegetables. One early piece of research in this area - a review of 34 studies comparing the nutritional content of organic versus non-organic food - was published in 1998. In this research, compared to conventionally grown food, organically grown food was found to have: similar or slightly lower amounts of protein, but higher protein quality (in terms of amino acid composition); higher levels of vitamin C in about half of all studies; and 5-20% higher mineral levels for a majority of minerals. Higher flavonoid content has also been shown in one study of organic versus non-organic foods.

From our perspective at the World's Healthiest Foods, we are not surprised at either set of results. Organics regulations are quite extensive in their lists of prohibited substances, and lower levels of contaminants in certified organic foods make perfect sense. Foods depend on soil and water for their nourishment, and cleaner soil and water means cleaner food. It's that simple.

The nutrient concentrations in organic versus non-organic food are another matter, however. Here the relationship is not so simple. Soil quality can vary greatly from region to region, and many differences in soil quality cannot be overridden by organic farming practices. Neither can genetic tendencies in plants, which can be very closely connected with the plants' harvest-stage nutrient content. In short, nutrient composition in plants is the result of many different factors that interact in a complex way, and organic farming practices - while beneficial - would not be expected to function like an "overriding factor" in terms of nutrient content. The idea of an average improved nourishment level of 5-20% makes good sense to us given this complicated mix of factors.

When you combine a significantly lower exposure to food contaminants with a 5-20% greater intake of nutrients, what you get is a winning combination. That's exactly the way we think about certified organic foods with respect to health: they are a winning combination, and clearly deserve a place in your meal plan.

What substances do we avoid by eating organic food?

Several thousand contaminants routinely present in the U.S. food supply are, by law, excluded from organic food, including:

Synthetic Pesticides: By far the largest group of contaminants 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. The Environmental Protection Agency has classified dozens of pesticides as potential carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). These pesticides can affect much more than the crops on which they are directly sprayed. 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. Many of these pesticide residues found in tap water started out in the form of crop sprays to help control infestation of food crops.

Heavy metals: The toxic metals cadmium, lead, and mercury can enter the food supply through industrial pollution of soil and groundwater and through machinery used in food processing and packaging. Cadmium exposure, which can be concentrated in plant tissues at levels higher than those in soil, has been linked to increased risk of lung, prostate and testicular cancers. Despite a well-documented negative impact on health - especially health of young children - lead residues can be found in many foods, including canned foods, which may still contain lead solder. Even low levels of lead intake can be harmful and have been associated with impaired neurobehavioral development, decreased stature and growth, and impaired hearing.

Solvents: Used to dissolve food components and produce food additives, solvents are found in a wide variety of commercially processed foods. Excessive exposure to solvents such as benzene and toluene has been linked to increased risk of several types of cancer. Excessive exposure to benzene has also been lined to increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis.

While food is by no means our only source of exposure to potentially harmful synthetic chemicals or heavy metals, food is something that passes continuously through our bodies, meal after meal, day after day, and year after year. It's this constant exposure to food that makes its quality so very important in our health.

Why Organically 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 can work to preserve and protect the environment.

Most conventional farming methods depend on a wide range of "off-farm inputs" for success. If the soil does not contain enough minerals, minerals are purchased from off the farm in the form of bagged synthetic fertilizers from a farm supply store. If there is not enough water available, irrigation pumps are installed and natural gas is used to run the pumps and irrigate the fields with groundwater. If insects are a threat to crops, pesticides are purchased from a supply store and sprayed to prevent crop infestation. These methods may result in successful crop production, but they do not result in sustainable use of resources. And in many cases, they can pose a risk to health by contaminating soil, water and air with levels of synthetic chemicals that cannot be readily absorbed by the earth.

Organic farming practices try to minimize "off-farm inputs" and seek to develop farming environment that is more self-contained. Along with the composting of plant materials, animals on the farm may be able to provide much of the necessary fertilizer in the form of composted manure. Crop rotation and the planting of cover crops may be able to improve soil nourishment. Avoidance of moldboard plowing may be able to help preserve soil integrity. Interplanting of crops may help reduce the need for pesticides as might biological balances in which natural predators take care of unwanted pests. Berms may help protect soil and plants from wind.

According to many experts in the field of resource conservation and global warming, changes in farming practices worldwide could very likely form a centerpiece for climate stabilization across out planet. Organic farming practices may be able to greatly reduce carbon emissions associated with production and transport of synthetic fertilizers, and carbon sequestration (retention) by agricultural land could be greatly increased through organic farming practices. By cutting down on carbon emissions and capturing more carbon in croplands themselves, organic farmers might be able to change U.S. agriculture from being a net emitter (releaser) of carbon into the atmosphere to a net retainer of carbon. That change might be able to help reverse the problem of humankind's ever-increasing carbon footprint.

Can you give me a one or two sentence summary of "organic" as it applies to USDA food labeling?

When the USDA certifies a food as organic, it is guaranteeing that the food was produced through USDA-approved methods designed to improve food quality and environmental conditions associated with food production. As part of this guarantee, the USDA forbids the use of sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering in any certified organic food, and at present, certified organic food is one of the few ways that U.S. consumers have to guarantee the absence of these practices from a food's production.

How are organic foods regulated?

Federal regulations are the laws authorized by major legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress. As part of the 1990 Farm Bill, the U.S. Congress included a title called Title XXI: The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). In this section of the Farm Bill, Congress instructed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish the National Organic Program (NOP). Once the 1990 Farm Bill was approved and signed into law, the USDA became responsible for developing organic standards.

What is the National Organic Standards Board?

As part of its ongoing process for development of organic standards, the National Organic Program relies heavily on the work of its 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The NOSB is appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture and is comprised of representatives from the following categories: farmer/grower; handler/processor; retailer; consumer/public interest; environmentalist; scientist; and certifying agent. Several standing committees exist on the NOSB, including a Livestock Committee, Materials Committee, Crops Committee, Policy Development Committee, Handling Committee, and Certification/Accreditation/Compliance Committee. NOSB committees typically meet on a quarterly basis to review petitions and consider proposed changes in organic regulations.

What factors led up to U.S. government certification of organic food?

Organic production had been practiced in the United States since the late 1940s. From that time, the industry had grown from experimental garden plots to large farms with surplus products sold under a special organic label. Food manufacturers developed organic processed products and many retail marketing chains specialized in the sale of "organic" products. This growth stimulated a need for verification that products are indeed produced according to certain standards. Thus, the organic certification industry also evolved.

More than 40 private organizations and state agencies (certifiers) currently certify organic food, but their standards for growing and labeling organic food may differ. For example, some agencies may permit or prohibit different pesticides or fertilizers in growing organic food. In addition, the language contained in seals, labels, and logos approved by organic certifiers may differ. By the late 1980s, after an attempt to develop a consensus of production and certification standards, the organic industry petitioned Congress to draft the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) defining "organic."

Can you give me more details about the certification process?

Certification standards establish the requirements that organic production and handling operations must meet to become accredited by USDA-accredited certifying agents. The information that an applicant must submit to the certifying agent includes the applicant's organic system plan. This plan describes (among other things) practices and substances used in production, record keeping procedures, and practices to prevent commingling of organic and non-organic products. The certification standards also address on-site inspections.

Producers and handling (processing) operations that sell less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products are exempt from certification. They may label their products organic if they abide by the standards, but they cannot display the USDA Organic seal. Retail operations, such as grocery stores and restaurants, do not have to be certified.

Accreditation standards establish the requirements an applicant must meet in order to become a USDA-accredited certifying agent. The standards are designed to ensure that all organic certifying agents act consistently and impartially. Successful applicants will employ experienced personnel, demonstrate their expertise in certifying organic producers and handlers, and prevent conflicts of interest and maintain strict confidentiality.

Imported agricultural products may be sold in the United States if they are certified by USDA-accredited certifying agents. Imported products must meet the NOP standards. USDA has accredited certifying agents in several foreign countries.

In lieu of USDA accreditation, a foreign entity also may be accredited when USDA "recognizes" that its government is able to assess and accredit certifying agents as meeting the requirements of the NOP called a recognition agreement.

What is rulemaking?

Rulemaking is the process of creating, amending, or removing regulations from the organics standards. The National Organics Program typically conducts rulemaking using four sequential steps:

1. Initial Planning. Before beginning the rulemaking process, the NOP first determines that the regulatory action is authorized by the Organic Foods Production Act. Rulemaking may be initiated for a variety of reasons, including: description of new requirements, clarification of existing language, and amendment of the National List.

2. Proposed Rule. A notice of proposed rulemaking is issued by the NOP, which proposes to add, change, or delete regulatory language and includes a request for public comments during a specified time period.

3. Public Comments. Public comments on the proposed rule are received and analyzed by the NOP.

4. Final Rule. A file rule is issued.

The overall rulemaking process can be lengthy, and can take anywhere from one to multiple years.

What are the basic organic standards for plant crops?

Farmers wanting to produce certified organic crops must show the USDA that their cropland has been free of prohibited substances for a period of 3 years. In addition farmers must agree to use practices that help promote soil integrity, including crop rotation and composting. While the USDA allows composted manure to be used in organic crop production, composting standards for manure are much stricter than non-organic standards. To prevent "drift" from synthetic pesticides or fertilizers used on non-organic adjacent cropland, farmers are also required to establish buffer zones around all certified organic crops.

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

When raising animals for food, farmers seeking organic certification are required to provide animals with 100% organic feed. They are also prohibited from routine use of antibiotics, wormers, and other prescription medications as a means of preventing illness in animals. There is also a requirement that animals have access to pasture during the grazing season, and that a minimum of 30% of total dry matter intake (DMI) be obtained from pasture forage during the grazing season. At a minimum, the grazing season must extend for at least 120 days. Organic regulations also require that animals have outdoor access during the first 6 months of life, except for circumstances involving problematic weather.

Are there basic organic standards for processing and handling?

Yes. Processors of certified organic food are forbidden to use certain additives, including sulfites, nitrites, and nitrates. Handlers of certified organic food are not allowed to store the food in any containers that contain prohibited synthetic fungicides or fumigants. In addition, containers that have previously come into contact with prohibited substances may not be reused to store certified organic foods.

What is the National List?

The National List is a critical part of federal organic standards. It lists materials that are acceptable for use in organic food production, materials that are prohibited from use, and "processing aids" that are acceptable during the organic food production process. As a very general guideline, natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed for use in organic production and synthetic substances are prohibited. However, there are definitely exceptions to this general rule, and the National List includes a specific section for Allowed Synthetic Substances and Prohibited Non-Synthetic (natural) Substances. The National List does not specific brand name products of any kind, but instead lists all allowed and prohibited substances by generic name. It's important to remember that the National List is continually changing, since allowed and prohibited substances can be added or removed from the list. Removals and additions typically involve NOSB committee review of petitions from manufacturers and other parties seeking changes in National List. Take me directly to the The National List.

How do I know if my food is organic?

Look at the label. If you see the USDA organic seal, the product is certified organic and has 95 percent or more organic content (by weight, excluding water and salt). For multi-ingredient products such as bread or soup, if the label claims that it is made with specified organic ingredients, you can be confident that those specific ingredients have been certified organic.

Can you give me more details about labeling?

Labeling standards are based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product. Products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients. Products labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. Products meeting the requirements for "100 percent organic" and "organic" may display the USDA Organic seal.

Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic ingredients" and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel. For example, soup made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients and only organic vegetables may be labeled either "made with organic peas, potatoes, and carrots," or "made with organic vegetables." The USDA Organic seal cannot be used anywhere on the package.

Processed products that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use the term "organic" other than to identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced in the ingredients statement.

A civil penalty of up to $11,000 for each offense can be levied on any person who knowingly sells or labels as organic a product that is not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program's regulations.

What about other types of food labels?

There are other voluntary labels for livestock products, such as meat and eggs:

Free-range. This label indicates that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This label is regulated by the USDA.

Cage-free. This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.

Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as "natural" must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.

Grass-fed. Grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals' pasture diet may be supplemented with grain. Also USDA regulated, the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. Meat products may be labeled as grass-fed organic.

Pasture-raised. Due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems, the USDA has not developed a labeling policy for pasture-raised products.

Humane. Multiple labeling programs make claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle, but the verification of these claims varies widely. These labeling programs are not regulated.

Other Questions About Organic Foods

Do organic foods taste better?

From a research standpoint, we don't know, because we have to see any large-scale formal research in this area. On an anecdotal basis, however, some people - including many chefs - believe that organic foods have better taste, color and flavor. The superior taste of organic foods leads these chefs to choose organic foods for their kitchens. One recent and informal survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association found that 50% of restaurants with a per-person dinner check of $25 or more offer organic items on their menus.

Why do organic foods cost more?

Much of the higher cost of organic foods can be explained by the scale of production. Organically grown foods - while growing in popularity across the U.S. and reaching a level of $25 billion in sales - still account for less than 4% of all foods purchased in the U.S. In comparison to conventionally grown foods, organic foods simply cannot reach the same economy of scale. The huge difference in production volume means that organically grown foods cannot compete in price with conventionally grown foods on a nationwide basis.

Organic foods don't always cost more, however. In some areas of the country and during certain seasons, the price of certain organic foods may be practically identical to the price of their conventionally grown counterparts. This situation is not common, but it does exist.

It's important to remember that conventionally grown foods often have a "hidden" cost - the cost of environmental harm and the cost of long-term health risks. These "hidden" costs do not show up on the grocery store shopping receipt, but they exist nevertheless.

How popular are organic foods?

Organic foods have been growing in popularity, not only in the United States, but worldwide. According to data from the Organic Trade Association, organic sales in the U.S. surpassed $26.5 billion in 2010 - a 7.7% increase in growth in one year. Organic Monitor estimates (also provided through the Organic Trade Association) show worldwide organic sales to have reached approximately $55 billion in 2009. On a worldwide basis, over 37 million hectares of land were cultivated organically in 2009 and used to produce organic crops. (Since one hectare is roughly 2.5 acres, this amount of land is roughly equivalent to 92.5 million acres.)

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, since 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.

Even though organic food sales in the U.S. surpassed $26.5 billion in 2010, organic food sales remained less than 4% of total U.S. food sales. Because the vast majority of U.S. foods are not produced organically, organic regulations have often come under pressure 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. To this day, consumer pressure remains important in keeping the "big three" (genetic engineering, irradiation, and sewage sludge) out of organic crop production.

One of the most controversial aspects 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). The NOSB includes five separate committees, including committees on livestock, food processing, crops and materials. The materials committee, in particular, must review a constant supply of petitions asking or permission to use more and more substances in the production of organically certified foods.

Where can I look on the Internet for more information about organic foods?

The official site of the National Organic Program (NOP) is a great place to start.

Organic trade association websites can also be extremely helpful. One of our favorites is the Organic Trade Association. Also very helpful is IFOAM: The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. Other helpful sites include: The Organic Consumers Association and Local Harvest.

For information on organic farming, you will want to visit the NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Project. This site is overseen by ATTRA, a key government agency providing information in the area of organic and sustainable agriculture.


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