Featured Image for Organic Foods - Part 1: The Low-Down

Over the past decade, it’s apparent that a lot of the country, if not the world, has been making a push toward a future where organic food products dominate the marketplace.  The general consensus seems to be that organic food products are somehow better and safer than non-organic products… but why?  What drives this consensus?  Is it true?  Is it as simple as “organic is better”?

Perhaps. But as with many things, this kind of statement may be an all-too-common over-simplification of a more complicated topic.  If only it were that simple. As Food Sentry analysts, we are naturally skeptical and curious and like to look deeper into the situation before making a judgment. Let’s dive in and take a look at “organic” and see what the facts tell us.

What often seems to be lacking in the dialogue regarding organics is the knowledge of exactly what organic food products are.  Most people have a notion of what it means, but may not have all the details. In this part (Part 1) of our three-part “Organic Foods” series, we’ll be giving you the low-down on what it generally means for a product to be identified as “organic” in the United States, and we’ll provide you with more advanced  knowledge that will help you to better judge organics on the whole.

To start things off, you should know that the organic market in the United States is regulated and governed under a piece of legislation called the “National Organics Program” (NOP) which is enforced and overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), not the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Within the NOP there are both general and specific guidelines that must be met by producers, including but not limited to: ingredient; contact substance and modification method specifications; product production, handling, and certification standards; and strict labeling requirements.

Ingredients, contact substances, and modification methods

In general, all agricultural products that are sold, labeled, or represented as “organic” in any way must not have come in contact with sewage sludge during production, and must be produced without the use of:

  • synthetic substances,
  • NOP-prohibited non-synthetic substances,
  • non-organic/non-agricultural and non-organic/agricultural substances used in or on processed products.

Also banned are ionizing radiation and various methods used to modify organisms and/or their growth and development in ways that cannot be achieved under natural conditions.

Although these rules apply to most substances in most situations, there are exceptions.  A number of these types of substances and methods are actually permitted (typically in specific forms) for use in various applications specified within the NOP.  A long list of these exceptions can be found here, Substance methods lists.

Product production, handling requirements, and certification

To produce and market organic products in the United States, an organization must become certified by a USDA-accredited organics certification agent.  In order to meet the USDA-established certification standards, producers and handlers must adhere to strict production guidelines that are specified further based on the product type, e.g., animal-based or plant-based (we’ll dive into these further in Part 2).

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Additionally, certification requires that producers and handlers employ stringent pest management practices at their facilities, and that they take all necessary measures to prevent the commingling of “organic” products with “non-organic” products and prohibited substances.  Organics producers and handlers are required to keep detailed logs of almost every aspect of their operations, which are reviewed annually by certifying agents who also perform annual on-site inspections.

Important! For those readers who purchase organic products from farmers markets or other smaller food-selling operations, you may be interested to know that if the entity/individual you purchase from reports under $5,000 annually from sales of organic products, they are not subject to the certification/verification as described above.

Labeling requirements

In our opinion, food labeling in the United States is probably one of the most confusing, dysfunctional and often misleading aspects of the food market.  In fact, there is a whole industry devoted to helping manufacturers learn and apply labeling regulations. Unfortunately, “organic” product labeling is no exception, though at least use of the term “organic” is better regulated than the term “natural.”  What many people don’t realize is that under the NOP there are actually four different types of labels which classify organic products:

  • “100 percent organic”
  • “Organic”
  • “Made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups)”
  • “<70 percent organic”

Each of these labels represents certain specifications and product requirements, which are as follows:

  • “100 percent organic” means: a raw or processed product that contains 100 percent organically produced ingredients (by weight or volume, excluding water or salt) that has been produced in accordance with the relevant production and handling guidelines set forth in the NOP.  This product will have the words “100 percent organic” on the packaging, as well as the USDA seal and name and/or logo of the certifying agent.
  • “Organic” means: a raw or processed product that contains at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (by weight or volume, excluding water or salt) that has been produced in accordance with the guidelines set forth in the NOP.  All other product ingredients must be produced organically (unless the ingredient isn’t commercially available in organic form), or they must be non-agricultural substances or non-organically produced agricultural products produced in accordance with the relevant production and handling guidelines within the NOP.  This product will have the word “Organic” on the packaging, as well as the USDA seal and name and/or logo of the certifying agent.  Additionally, the packaging must display the percentage of organic ingredients in the product and each individual ingredient that is organic in these products must be labeled as “organic” in the ingredients section of the packaging.
  • “Made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups)” means: a multi-ingredient agricultural product that contains at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients (by weight or volume, excluding water or salt) that has been produced in accordance with the guidelines set forth in the NOP.  This product will display the words “Made with organic” followed by three or fewer ingredients or food groups, as well as the total percentage of organic ingredients in the product and the name and logo of the certifying agent.  Additionally, the individual ingredients that are organic in these products must be labeled as “organic” in the ingredients section of the packaging.  These packages will not display the USDA seal.
  • “<70 percent organic” means: a multi-ingredient agricultural product containing less than 70 percent organically produced ingredients (by weight or volume, excluding water or salt) that has been produced in accordance with the guidelines set forth in the NOP.  Non-organic ingredients in these products are not subject to the requirements of the NOP.  This product will only display the word “organic” next to organically produced ingredients in the ingredient statement on the packaging and the total percentage of organic ingredients in the product.  These products will not display the USDA seal or any certifying agent’s information.

The low-down

So there it is – the gist of what it means to be an organic product in the United States.  Your (hopefully) new and/or improved knowledge should serve you well as you navigate local groceries, co-ops, and farmers markets.  Unfortunately, however, the puzzle of organics is still incomplete, as a question lingers: what are the actual differences between “organic” and “non-organic” products?

In Part 2 of this series, Organic Foods – Meat Me in the Produce Aisle, we’ll attempt to answer this question by explaining in a little greater detail the specific production and handling requirements that set organic meats and produce apart from their non-organic counterparts.