Understanding the New USDA Organic Label

On October 21, 2002, new laws governing the consistency of organic farming, processing, and labeling took effect. Producers of organic products have 18 months to bring farming and processing practices in line with the new standards (i.e. by April 21, 2004). Producers of organic foods who are subject to regulation include growers, processors, retailers and restaurants. Processors include any operation in which food is handled, from a soup factory to a grocery which prepares meals on site.

The standards have been both hailed as a great leap forward and criticized as representing “the bare minimum.” While the terms “organic” and “certified organic” now represent a unified, enforceable government standard, that standard allows for some practices which some consumers may consider less than bona fide organic.

According to the Government, What Does “Organic” mean?

The USDA has spelled out a definition of “organic” that fits with what the term commonly implies: no hormones, no irradiation, no synthetic pesticides, no sewage sludge. Consumers hoping to avoid most chemical detritus in their produce will get what they want by purchasing products labeled with the new USDA “organic” logo. Not all synthetic substances are prohibited—some substances are considered clearly safe, such as plastic sheeting used as mulch—but others may give consumers pause. Boric acid and elemental sulfur are among the list of approved pesticides, and chlorine materials are permitted in crop production (for such uses as sanitation). Direct contact with food is prohibited, but consumers should still be aware that “100% organic” doesn’t mean “free from chemical association of any kind.” Further, restrictions on synthetic substances can be waived through an appeals process if a grower has a specific need. Consumers who have concerns can review the list of approved substances, as well as the list of substances under appeal, at the NOP (National Organic Program) website (see links below).

The new USDA organic label. The label guarantees that the food producer is submitting to oversight by a certifying agent, but all producers calling their products “organic” are required to meet the standard, even if they do not bear the label.

While the new label may not guarantee a standard all consumers can agree on, it does represent a fairly exhaustive set of regulations which growers and processors must follow, under the administration of a certifying agent. The label cannot be used by any operation that has not undertaken the appropriate steps: applying for certification, meeting with an accredited certifying agent, creating a plan for producing or processing organic food (with that agent), keeping appropriate records, and updating that plan yearly. The final product must be 95-100% organic in order to be labeled “organic.” In order to be labeled as “made with organic ingredients” the final product must be at least 70% organic.

But here's the tricky part: must your organic purchase be “certified” in order to meet government standards? Yes and no.

The Difference Between “Certified Organic” and “Organic”

Although the new label designates only certified organic foods, the use of the term “organic”, with or without the label, implies adherence to government standards. Although very small farms (those which gross less than $5,000) are exempt from the certification requirement, they are not exempt from the regulations, and are subject to inspection or other methods of enforcement. For practical purposes, there is no qualitative difference between the terms “certified organic” and “organic.” “Certified organic” (bearing the USDA logo) indicates only that the grower or processor has submitted to official oversight by a certifying agent . Using the term “organic” alone still subjects the grower to government regulation, but without official oversight. In fact, fraudulent use of the term “organic” is subject to a $10,000 fine by the USDA. The threat of a fine doesn’t guarantee compliance, of course, but should offer consumers the comfort of a common set of guidelines.

Since only the smallest farms are exempt from certification, the majority of organic food consumers see will at least have the potential to be certified. In practice, many small farms which are eligible to apply for certification, but lack sufficient resources, may choose not to undergo the detailed and costly certification process. Although fifteen states do offer a cost-sharing program, which helps smaller farmers offset certification costs, the reality is that much of the organic food consumers see will likely be uncertified. Consumers who are more comfortable with government oversight will be more apt to choose products that are “certified,” but those who prefer to buy from small farms can still be assured of USDA oversight.

What Else Does “Organic” Mean?

Growers and processors who undertake producing foods organically also undertake an environmental responsibility. In addition to keeping the final product from being contaminated, operations are obligated to keep the land from being contaminated. Use of cover crops and soil additives (including compost made from questionable sources) are regulated to ensure that the environment is maintained or improved. Part of every certified operation’s plan must also include procedures for maintaining or improving soil and water quality. The grower or processor bears the primary responsibility of ensuring the “organic integrity” of the final product, by also ensuring the integrity of the growing cycle year after year.

Retailers' Responsibilities to the Consumer

Once organic foods make their way to the retailer, responsibility for ensuring the “organic integrity” of the final product becomes his. In addition to understanding the regulations governing growers and processors, the retailer must adhere to a separate set of rules for selling organic foods. The first thing a retailer must do is vouch for the “organic integrity” of the product he intends to sell. By understanding regulations governing production, storage, and transport, the retailer can ask appropriate questions: Does the truck smell like synthetic pesticides? Have non-organic products been dripping on the organic products? Have the storage containers ever held non-organic products? Once having established the organic integrity to his satisfaction, the retailer is then free to assign the term “organic” to the product display. The retailer, too, can be fined if the term “organic” is used fraudulently, and so it is in the retailer’s interest to provide an appropriate check for a grower, especially one who is not certified. On the flip side, a retailer who knows a grower and is confident of the grower’s practices, is not obliged to inspect every shipment before labeling a product “organic.”

Once having ensured the organic integrity of a product, the retailer must then take separate steps to keep the product organic. It must not be mingled with non-organic foods directly, and it must not be in danger of indirect contamination through leaks from above or porous storage containers. No storage containers used for non-organic products can be reused for organic products, however well cleaned, and proper cleaning and sanitation procedures must be followed for all containers and utensils. It should be noted that cleaners and sanitizers are considered food contact substances, not ingredients, and are therefore regulated by the FDA, not the National Organic Program. Since the FDA is presumably less concerned with organic integrity, the likelihood of chemical association rises in the retail environment.

How Do I Know What to Choose?

Consumers have been increasing purchases of organic products at an astounding rate—total sales topped $1 billion in 1997. Uniform standards, it is hoped, will provide a system of checks and balances against those producers who want to capitalize from this growing market. While larger farms and producers stand to benefit from a “certified” designation, that doesn't mean that consumers need to choose only “certified organic” foods to guarantee themselves an “organic” purchase. Small farms and retailers are equally obligated to be in compliance with government standards. The practicality of holding smaller farms accountable aside, consumers should be aware that “organic” and “certified organic” (and thus bearing the official USDA label) indicate a difference in the size of the grower, essentially, and not the relative “organic integrity” of the product in question.

Consumers should also recognize that they can take responsibility for reporting non-compliance. All operations using the term “organic” are subject to the same regulations, which also require open access to records, storage, preparation, and growing areas. That is to say, all operations claiming to produce food organically can be inspected at any time. The same safety net exists for both certified and uncertified organic products; the consumer decides who holds it, himself or the USDA.


Web links – Details of the new regulations can be found at www.ams.usda.gov/nop/. For additional commentary on the regulations, visit www.eco-labels.org.