- of, relating to, or derived from living matter.
synonyms: living, live, animate, biological, biotic
Like most Americans, you’re probably familiar with the term “Organic” as it pertains to food. Over the past decade, its status as a “health buzzword” has grown tremendously to the point where most folks believe that organic foods are something they should be eating more of. Perhaps you are familiar enough with organic foods to know that a food package boasting the word “Organic” is not the same thing as being certified as organic, or that USDA Organic foods are also assuredly GMO-free. Or maybe you’re new to the realm of organic food and aren’t so sure what that symbol actually means.
Whether your interest is new it is important to understand what you are buying, eating and supporting so that you can make the best choices for yourself and your family.
What Organic Really Means
Organic agriculture differs from conventional agriculture in that farmers make a commitment to only farm with materials and practices that are supportive of living (organic) processes. Organic produce and animals are grown with a lesser degree of intervention; that is, without synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, or GMO’s. This is enforced by routine inspection, but the attitude of many organic farmers is one that embraces the value of organic agriculture. Consumers are increasingly drawn to purchase organically grown foods because of the perception that they are safer for human consumption, affect the environment more gently and are grown and sold with a greater consideration for ethics.1
The Organic Label
Foods may only display the organic label if they meet the standards outlined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act gave authority to the USDA to regulate the label. To be labeled as “organic” or display the round, green symbol, the food product must contain at least 95% ingredients that comply with the organic standards.
For foods like fresh produce, milk or eggs (single-ingredient foods,) labels may simply say “organic” or the green label. Food products with multiple ingredients, however, can be labeled in one of three ways:
- 100% Organic
- Organic – 95-99% of ingredients must be organic, by weight
- Made with Organic Ingredients – 70-94% of ingredients must be organic
Of these, only the first two classifications may also display the organic seal, because of the 95% organic requirement.
The Organic Standards
Organic products cannot contain synthetic additives such as antibiotics, pesticides, and certain preservatives. To be considered an organic farm or processor, the following standards must be maintained (and verified by the USDA):
- Preserve natural resources and biodiversity – this is monitored in a number of ways, such as green waste.
- Support animal health and welfare – aside from access to outdoors, the handbook does not rely as heavily on regulations as on auditor documentation
- Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors – Note that there are not space or stocking rate requirements
- Only use approved materials – The Code of Federal Regulations outlines approved and prohibited materials here.
- Do not use genetically modified ingredients – Policy Memorandum available here.
- Receive annual onsite inspections – conducted by certified individuals, including unannounced inspections, and
- Separate organic food from non-organic food – read about other measures to prevent contamination here.
1 McFadden, Dawn Thilmany. (2015). What Do We Mean by “Local Foods”? Choices.
Organic Education. (2015). Organic FAQs.
USDA. (2011). Guidance and Instructions for Accredited Certifying Agents and Certified Operations. National Organic Program Handbook.
USDA. (09 January 2015). Organic Agriculture.
The Public Health and Safety Organization. (2015). Organic Labeling Requirements.