What Does the "Organic"
Label Really Mean?
no longer have to play a guessing game when it comes to organic
foods. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
now has national standards for the use of the word “organic.”
Unlike just a few years ago, consumers buying organic products,
whether produced in the United States or imported, can be
assured that the foods are produced without antibiotics, hormones,
pesticides, irradiation or bioengineering. Organic farmers
are required to adhere to certain soil and water conservation
methods and to rules about the humane treatment of animals.
The USDA now uses private and state agencies to inspect and
certify food companies that market organic foods. Small farmers
with less than $5,000 in organic sales, such as those selling
at small farmers’ markets, are exempt from the certification
process but they still must be truthful in their label claims
and comply with the new government standards. Individuals
or companies who sell or label a product as organic when they
know it does not meet USDA standards, can be fined up to $10,000
for each violation.
Currently, organic foods represent a small part of overall
grocery sales in the United States, but the market is growing
steadily. In 2001, sales of organic foods and beverages exceeded
$9 billion. The new regulations are expected to help the organic
industry as consumers become more confident in the labeling
and as larger corporations enter the organic foods market.
As the new regulations are phased in, it is important to
keep in mind that the term “organic” does not necessarily
mean “healthier.” The USDA makes no claim that organically
produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally
produced food. Consumers will still need to read nutrition
labels and make wise selections to maintain an overall healthy
diet. Keep in mind that the words “natural” and “organic”
are not interchangeable. Only food labeled “organic” designate
that the product meets the new USDA organic standards.
Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious ?
Learn the difference between organic foods and their traditionally
grown counterparts. Decide which is best for you, considering
nutrition, quality, taste, cost and other factors.
Conventional vs. organic farming
The word "organic" refers to the way farmers grow
and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables,
grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices
are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and
reduce pollution. Farmers who grow organic produce and meat
don't use conventional methods to fertilize, control weeds
or prevent livestock disease. For example, rather than using
chemical weedkillers, organic farmers conduct sophisticated
crop rotations and spread mulch or manure to keep weeds at
Here are other differences between conventional farming and
|Apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth.
||Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost,
to feed soil and plants.
|Spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease.
||Use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption
or traps to reduce pests and disease.
|Use chemical herbicides to manage weeds.
||Rotate crops, till, hand weed or mulch to manage weeds.
|Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones
and medications to prevent disease and spur growth
||Give animals organic feed and allow them access to the
outdoors. Use preventive measures — such as rotational
grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing — to help minimize
Organic or not? Check the label
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established
an organic certification program that requires all organic
foods to meet strict government standards. These standards
regulate how such foods are grown, handled and processed.
Any farmer or food manufacturer who labels and sells a product
as organic must be USDA certified as meeting these standards.
Only producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic
foods are exempt from this certification.
Products certified 95 percent or more
organic display this USDA sticker.
If a food bears a USDA Organic label, it means it's produced
and processed according to the USDA standards and that at
least 95 percent of the food's ingredients are organically
produced. The seal is voluntary, but many organic producers
Products that are completely organic — such as fruits, vegetables,
eggs or other single-ingredient foods — are labeled 100 percent
organic and can carry a small USDA seal. Foods that have more
than one ingredient, such as breakfast cereal, can use the
USDA organic seal or the following wording on their package
labels, depending on the number of organic ingredients:
- 100 percent organic. Products that are
completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
- Organic. Products that are at least 95
- Made with organic ingredients. These
are products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
The organic seal can't be used on these packages.
Foods containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients
can't use the organic seal or the word "organic"
on their product label. They can include the organic items
in their ingredient list, however.
You may see other terms on food labels, such as "all-natural,"
"free-range" or "hormone-free." These
descriptions may be important to you, but don't confuse them
with the term "organic." Only those foods that are
grown and processed according to USDA organic standards can
be labeled organic.
Organic food: Buy or bypass?
Many factors may influence your decision to buy — or not
buy — organic food. Consider these factors:
- Nutrition. No conclusive evidence shows
that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally
grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic
food — doesn't claim that these products are safer or more
- Quality and appearance. Organic foods
meet the same quality and safety standards as conventional
foods. The difference lies in how the food is produced,
processed and handled. You may find that organic fruits
and vegetables spoil faster because they aren't treated
with waxes or preservatives. Also, expect less-than-perfect
appearances in some organic produce — odd shapes, varying
colors and perhaps smaller sizes. In most cases, however,
organic foods look identical to their conventional counterparts.
- Pesticides. Conventional growers use
pesticides to protect their crops from molds, insects and
diseases. When farmers spray pesticides, this can leave
residue on produce. Some people buy organic food to limit
their exposure to these residues. Most experts agree, however,
that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables
poses a very small health risk.
- Environment. Some people buy organic
food for environmental reasons. Organic farming practices
are designed to benefit the environment by reducing pollution
and conserving water and soil.
- Cost. Most organic food costs more than
conventional food products. Higher prices are due to more
expensive farming practices, tighter government regulations
and lower crop yields. Because organic farmers don't use
herbicides or pesticides, many management tools that control
weeds and pests are labor intensive. For example, organic
growers may hand weed vegetables to control weeds, and you
may end up paying more for these vegetables.
- Taste. Some people say they can taste
the difference between organic and nonorganic food. Others
say they find no difference. Taste is a subjective and personal
consideration, so decide for yourself. But whether you buy
organic or not, finding the freshest foods available may
have the biggest impact on taste.