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Organic Labeling


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Photo Credit: Organic Cauliflower, originally uploaded by Rob215.

Organic labeling is regulated by the USDA. Currently there are 4 types of organic labels:

  1. products labeled “100% organic,” must contain 100% organic ingredients.
  2. products labeld “organic,” must contain at least 95% organic ingredients.
  3. products labeled “Made with organic ingredients,” must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.
  4. products labeled with less than 70% organic ingredients, must not use the “organic” label, but may identify the organic ingredients in the ingredient label.

What does the organic label mean? The National Organic Program, a division of the USDA, regulates and oversees organic farming and producing practices and sets the standards for organic labeling. In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act was passed. However, it was not until 2000 that the standards were issued. Currently, an accredited USDA-certifier verifies that organic farming and production practices are meeting the standards set by the USDA. The USDA-certfier is prohibited from having any conflict of interest.

Photo Credit: USDA Organic Seal, originally uploaded by tsw2002.

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize environmentally sound and sustainable farming practices. As described by the USDA, organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are not given any antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic animals must eat 100% organic feed that does not contain any of the animal byproducts or growth hormones. Organic animals must have access to the outdoors. Organic food is produced without using most synthetic or petroleum-derived pesticides and fertilizers, or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.

The USDA has a several different tiers of organic labels. Products which are labeled 100% organic must contain only organically produced ingredients(except water and salt). Products labeled organic must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). The remaining percentage of the product must consist of synthetic substances approved for use by the USDA on a National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form. Products which meet the stipulations for “100 % organic” and “organic” may display these terms and the percentage of organic content on the package. The USDA seal may appear on the product packages or advertisments, but it is not mandatory.

The next tier consists of foods which contain at least 70% organic ingredients. These foods can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and list up to 3 of the organic ingredients or food groups on their display panel. The USDA seal can not be used on the package; however, the percent of organic content and the certifying agent seal may be used.

The final tier consists of foods which contain less than 70% of organic ingredients. These products can not use the term “organic” on the display panel. They may identify the organic ingredients on the ingredient statement. The penalty for using the organic label without adhering to USDA requirements is $11,000.

The USDA has received criticism for not being more stringent in its criteria. Outdoor access for animals, including poultry is vague and not well circumstantiated. Ingredients used in production must be organic; however, substances used in processing, which may leave trace residues, need not be organic. One should be aware that the relatively rigorous standards applied to organic labeling of food does not apply to personal care products (cosmetics, shampoo,perfume…).

The label “natural” is defined by the USDA only for meat and poultry products. “Natural” meat and poultry products must not contain artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, artificial or synthetic ingredients and are only “minimally” processed. “Minimal” processing is described as a process that does not fundamentally alter the raw product. The USDA does not have a verification system in place to monitor the use of the label “natural.”   Also, there are no restrictions on the use of other labels, such as “free-range,” “sustainably harvested,” or “hormone-free.” For comprehensive descriptions of commonly used labels please check out www.eco-labels.org.

  1. USDA
  2. eco-labels
  3. The New Standard

2 Comments »

  JoAnn Misra wrote @ April 7th, 2007 at 10:01 am

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Dear Neelu,
Yes, I do think it is very important to try to eat foods that are labeled organic so as to lessen your exposure to pesticides, hormone, and fungicides. However, the cost of these types of foods is prohibitive to most people. Untill the cost of these foods can be brought down, most people cannot afford these kinds of food. I know for myself, I don’t like to spend the extra money that it takes to buy these kinds of foods. I do shop at Trader Joe’s where many of their foods are listed as organic but I do not shop at Whole Foods “whole paycheck” as their prices are too high for me. I guess the bottom line is money before health.

  neelam wrote @ April 8th, 2007 at 8:14 pm

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I agree with you that making healthy food choices should not be financially impossible. High quality food should be affordable for everyone. Food is a basic necessity, and the quality of food we eat makes makes a profound impact on our health. which in turn makes a huge difference in health-care costs. I think that as consumers become more aware of the benefits (health, environmental, societal) of healthy food choices, food suppliers will be forced to provide more affordable, high-quality food on a large-scale.

There are cheaper alternatives to “Whole Foods,” such as local farmer’s markets or CSA farms. CSA farms or Community Supported Agriculture farms are local farms supported by a community or group of individuals. In a CSA a community or group of individuals pledge support to a local farm. CSA farmers typically use organic or biodynamic farming methods and try to maximize ecological potential and stewardship of the land. In exchange, the members of the CSA farm recieve low-cost, fresh, locally and sustainably produced food. Please check out the article Natural Food, Unnatural Prices(http://www.alternet.org/story/31260/) the section Whole food, nonmarket solutions is very informative. Also to find a local CSA, check out: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml#define

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