Regulations on Labeling Organic Foods

Organic carrots
What makes these carrots organic?

Regulations on labeling organic foods are becoming better and more comprehensive, but there's still a long way to go before organic labeling is up to the standard it should be.

Current Regulations on Labeling Organic Foods

The current regulations related to organic foods can be confusing to consumers, not because of the label itself but because other label and terms have popped up in recent years that make products sound "organic" that truly aren't.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the organization that set the current guidelines for labeling organic foods. These guidelines (or standards) must be met before food can be labeled a true certified organic food item.

The USDA organic seal.

If a food item, whether an apple, box of cereal or bag of organic yogurt chips wears the label "USDA Organic", it's met the standards set fourth by The U.S. Department of Agriculture. The current label is a white and green circle with the words USDA Organic in white and green text.

The Required Standards

To obtain the USDA Organic label, a food item must meet the following standards:

  • Produced by farmers and/or companies that practice, or highly emphasize, renewable resources and water and soil conservation.
  • Organic meats must come from animals who have not been given hormones or antibiotics.
  • Organic eggs, poultry, cheeses and other dairy products must come from animals given no hormones or antibiotics and must be produced without pesticides.
  • Organic foods cannot be grown or produced with the use of conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, bioengineering, or radiation.
  • A government-approved certifier visits where the food is being processed or grown to ensure that all standards are being met before a food item can be labeled "organic."

If a company uses the USDA Organic label and they clearly have not met all the standards, the company can be fined up to $11,000 per violation.

Confusion Surrounding Organic Labeling

The tricky thing about the regulations on labeling organic foods is that foods must only be 95 percent organic to receive the seal. Technically a farmer could use pesticides on 5 percent of his or her land and still call the food produced organic. However, this is probably unlikely because why bother? With a 95 percent standard, it's simple to meet the entire 100 percent.

Additionally tricky is the fact that a food item may be organic and meet all the standards but a company is not required to use the USDA labels. It always pays to read your food packaging and to maybe do a bit of background checking on companies you're curious about.

Other label confusions may arise based on the following:

  • The term "natural" being used on a food item. Natural is not the same as "organic" and means little from a standards point of view. The same goes for foods labeled hormone-free or free-range. The claims may be true, but there are no labeling requirements at this time for any of the above. Also, none of the terms are interchangeable with organic.
  • Foods labeled "USDA 100 percent Organic" vs. "USDA Organic." Both terms are supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Plain old "organic" simply means that only 95 percent must be organic.
  • Foods labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients" are certified and must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients and cannot be made with radiation.
  • Each product labeled as organic, barring items such as whole organic vegetables and fruits, must state each organic ingredient on the packaging such as a can of soup.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture places no restrictions on other labeling claims such as free-range, sustainable harvest, or no growth hormones.
  • Food companies and farms selling under $5,000 a year worth of food items are not allowed to use the organic label because they're exempt.
  • Alcohol beverage labeling is a whole other ball game and there's a long list of regulations.

Of course regulations on labeling organic foods can always improve. For example, currently seafood is not certified, although there are plans to certify seafood items eventually. Right now some organizations would like to change the current green and white label design to a packaging-neutral color to cut costs. So, if a package was blue the label would be blue as well.

To learn more and to keep up to date on news about and changes to organic labeling laws visit the Organic Consumers Association.

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Regulations on Labeling Organic Foods