People who look for organic foods may be curious to know the certified organic definition. In the U.S., the official definition is determined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Only products that meet this definition can have the USDA certified organic seal in their labeling and advertising.
Degrees of Certified Organic
The USDA's certified organic definition is based on product ingredients. Thus, there are different degrees of certified organic that manufacturers can advertise depending on a product's components.
Organic or 100 Percent Organic
To be labeled "100 percent organic," the only items the product can contain that are not organically produced are salt and water. All materials used in processing must be organic as well. To earn the moniker of "organic," the percentage is lowered to 95 percent. The remaining 5 percent has to be products that are not sold commercially in an organically produced form. These products must be approved and included on a National List of such products. In either case, the manufacturer is free to use the "USDA Organic" seal on product packages.
Made with Organic Ingredients
To be allowed to use the term "made with organic ingredients" on the label, a manufacturer has to use 70 percent or more organically produced materials. In such a case, the company is allowed to specifically list only three of the ingredients as organic on the main side of the product label. These can be individual ingredients or groups of ingredients. For example, a label could read "made with organic fruit, nuts and vegetables" or "made with organic apples, oranges and pears." All organic ingredients must be identified on the ingredients list. The manufacturer cannot use the USDA seal on these products.
Specific Organic Ingredients
Products that have less than 70 percent organic ingredients should not have the term organic on their labels anywhere but on the ingredients list in front of the specific ingredients that qualify.
Other Requirements for Certified Organic Definition
Products that are 100 percent organic, organic or made with organic ingredients cannot be treated with sewage sludge, ionizing radiation or other excluded methods, such as genetic modification. More details are available through the USDA.
Of course, the USDA will not take manufacturers at their word when they say that their products are organic. They send out USDA-accredited certifying agents to check where all of the ingredients come from to make sure that they meet requirements. All organic products need to include the certifying agent's name on the label as well as the agent's address.
Products you see at the farmer's market that are labeled organic may not have been put under the scrutiny of the USDA. It depends on the profitability of the farm. The USDA only inspects organizations that have more than $5,000 in gross income. Thus, a man that has a few apple trees in his backyard that he does not spray with pesticides can write "organic" on their price tag without much worry.
The USDA does not take it lightly when companies use the organic labeling system without permission, so consumers can be reasonably sure that they are getting what they think they are getting. A company can face a civil fine of more than $10,000 for labeling a product as organic when it isn't to knowingly deceive the public.
However, there are no such restrictions on other terms, such as "free range," "sustainably harvested" or "natural." Producers are free to use these terms, whether they are true to the products or not, with impunity. There are many consumer organizations trying to get stricter labeling standards put in place to prevent misuse.