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How can I Understand the Labels on Organic Foods?

Topics

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

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 did we need the April 2001 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 adopted the first national standards regarding organic foods, which took effect in April, 2001, and farms and others had until October 2002 to fully comply to the new law for their products to be labeled as "Organic." State and private certifiers are accredited by the USDA to ensure that food processors and growers comply to the April 2001 standards.

Since October 2002, you can be certain that organically labeled products in all the states meet the federal standards. States can (and some do) have stricter standards than the federal government

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 USDA April 2001 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 government seal identifies "organic foods."

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

What are the federally mandated labels that identify "Organic" products?

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 is the term "Certified Organic" used under the April 2001 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 Are Covered by the April 2001 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 are not 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.

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