The official USDA Certified Organic seal isn't a marketing ploy or strategy. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) enforces strict guidelines mandated by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 and administered by the National Organic Program (NOP) under the direction of the Secretary of Agriculture.
Organic Seal Standards
The NOP has established rules and practices that ensure that all certified organic products meet minimum national standards.Whether they're grown domestically or imported, organic product producers are accredited by a group of private, non-profit agencies that act as official certifiers. The standards governing accreditation were established by the recommendations of a comprehensive group of environmentalists, farmers, scientists, consumer groups and retailers in order to come up with a strategy to regulate organic production along the entire supply chain from seed to table.
Checks and Balances
The result is a network of regulatory checks and balances which ensures that goods carrying the USDA Certified Organic seal comply with the National Organic Program Standards (NOPS).Certifying agencies are themselves evaluated every five years, and the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a panel of experts, periodically advises the Secretary of Agriculture about important issues involving the program within key categories:
- Crops Standards
- International Issues
- Livestock and Livestock Products Standards
- Processing, Packaging, and Labeling Standards
Important Organic Standards
A few major guidelines for farm accreditation are:
- Farms cannot use banned substances, and soil must be free of banned substance use for a period of three years before obtaining certification.
- No synthetic substances are used besides those on the NOSB approved list.
- Livestock is fed only 100 percent organic feed.
- Farms maintain complete records regarding their use of fertilizers and pesticides, and must submit to periodic inspections.
- No use of irradiation or genetically altered breeds.
There is an exemption for small farmers who produce less than $5,000 in revenue annually from organic methods. They may legally claim that their products are organic but cannot use the USDA organic label on their merchandise.
The levels of organic purity in a USDA Certified products vary, but the label will give you a clue:
- 100 Percent Organic - all ingredients and production methods meet organic standards.
- USDA Organic - 95 percent of the ingredients in the product are organic.
- Made with Organic Ingredients - 70 percent or more of the ingredients are organic in nature. These products will be authorized to carry the labeling "Made with organic ingredients" but may not display the USDA seal.
Modifications to the Original Program
Because the NOSB makes periodic recommendations about the types substances that can safely be included in organic production, standards can change as new information becomes available. The use of some synthetic substances, additions to the ban on some natural but dangerous substances, and potential changes in policy regarding genetically modified products (GMOs) are all topics of debate relative to the organic food supply. The best way to be an informed consumer is to pay close attention to labels and look to a number of sources to learn what you need to know about the products you buy. Consumer Reports has an excellent website devoted to providing accurate information about green goods: Green Choices. You can also visit the USDA for any changes to National Organic Program Policy.