Organic Standards

by Goldie Caughlan, PCC Nutrition Education Manager

This article was originally published in February 2001

Fruit and text

After much breath-holding, and with considerable fan-fare, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released its latest attempt at what it hopes will be accepted as the final rule for Organic Standards. This is the third effort since passage of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, but this time, no serious opposition is expected. These proposed rules are expected to become final February 19, making them the first national organic standards.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) basically is pleased and relieved. The OTA represents more than 1,000 members, including most certified organic growers, manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, retailers and others involved with organics. The OTA is continually involved in giving counsel to staff at the National Organic Program (NOP) at the USDA and has worked closely with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The rules, as anticipated, meet virtually all of the major concerns of previously drafted rules, which provoked nearly 300,000 negative responses three years ago. The most worrisome, the “big three” issues, all have been addressed. The rules specifically prohibit use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sewage sludge and ionizing radiation in organic production.

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA), an organic advocacy group, likewise is expressing no strong objections to the rules as published. What the OCA is criticizing strongly is the paltry amount of USDA funding and marketing support given to organic agriculture, compared to the billions spent on research and promotion of environmentally unsustainable industrial agriculture. The OCA is especially critical of the USDA’s direct involvement in promoting genetically modified animals and agricultural crops. The USDA, in fact, has refused to give up it’s share of a patent on the so-called “Terminator” technology, which renders the seeds of a plant sterile and poses great risks for seed and food security.

What the rule covers

Briefly, the rule addresses production and handling requirements. This includes all types of organic crop production, the harvesting of wild crops, the management of organic livestock and all aspects of the processing and handling of organic agricultural products.

It specifies all aspects of labeling for organic agricultural products including methods of compliance, testing, fees and how state programs interface with the USDA. The regulations do not require certification of farmers selling less than $5,000 annually, although farmers must comply with the regulations if they sell their products as organic. The rule also exempts — for now — restaurants, delis and retail groceries.

However, it will be another 18 months before you and I as consumers — or the co-op, as a retailer — will notice anything different in the appearance of our certified organic foods.

Phase one

The first task of the USDA during the next 18 months is to process applications for accreditation for all currently established certifying organizations. There’s now a total of about 50 certifying groups, including independent certifiers and a handful of state certifying programs, including Washington state. Virtually all are expected to qualify to become agents, eligible to certify growers, manufacturers and handlers to the specifics of the USDA organic program.

To kick-start things, the USDA is waiving all charges to all currently operating certifiers, which levels the playing field considerably. Some very small, essentially non-profit certifying groups — particularly in the Northeast and South — probably would have gone under otherwise. On the other hand, large operations such as California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Oregon Tilth (both labels you’ve probably seen) would have had to pay hefty accreditation fees. Even Washington State’s organic program (which PCC helped establish more than a decade ago and which has an excellent national reputation) must jump through the USDA’s new hoops. But it makes good sense in the universe of regulatory bureaucracies. Everyone needed to be under the same tent, playing by the same rules.

States can have stricter standards than the USDA under some circumstances, for example, to protect a watershed; but states may not require other certifying bodies to match their stricter standards. Also, any certifier can certify a producer or grower to a specific standard, for example to export requirements, but cannot market that standard against USDA standards. Sulfites and the USDA seal

Are there any surprises or controversial aspects? Sulfites in wine had been contentious. The new rule resolves this by following the same approach that Washington state has taken: wine that contains sulfites may only be labeled “Made with Organic Grapes.” The few wines on the market that do not contain added sulfites — and only those — would receive the “Organic Wine” distinction.

There also was considerable concern in the organic industry, from certifying agencies and some manufacturers, over the implications of a USDA organic seal. Initially, it seemed the USDA would make it mandatory to display the seal. Many in the industry feared it could be received as a negative flag in consumers’ minds — especially given the controversies stirred by the USDA’s first attempt to develop organic rules three years ago. Other sectors of the food industry, including many inside the USDA, were concerned a mandatory seal might imply that the USDA affirms a certified organic product is a superior product, something the USDA definitely does not want the consumer to believe! In any event, don’t expect to see any display of the seal until the expiration of the 18 months from February 19, 2001. Expect it about mid-August 2002.

Labeling rules

The new labeling standards themselves are viewed by both industry and consumer groups as being both helpful and potentially confusing, with four separate categories.

“100% organic”

Raw or processed agricultural products labeled “100% organic” must contain 100 percent (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) organically-produced ingredients. The “100% organic” statement may be displayed on the principal display or information panel, on any other part of the package and on any marketing information concerning the product. The USDA seal and the seal or mark of any or all certification agencies may appear on the principal display panel.


Raw or processed agricultural products with the “organic” label must contain not less than 95 percent (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) organically-produced raw or processed agricultural products.

Any remaining product ingredients must fall into one of two categories: either non-agricultural substances consistent with a list of permitted synthetics (some as simple as baking soda) or they may be non-organic agricultural products that aren’t commercially available in organic form (such as lecithin).

The “commercial availability” aspect is of concern to consumers, both because the term is slippery and because it doesn’t specifically say the minor ingredient must be non-GMO. “Commercial availability” is within the discretion of the certifying agent to determine whether it’s legitimate. With organics expanding in every sector, hopefully this will be of less concern as time passes. This issue is being studied and monitored constantly by the NOP and the NOSB.

The “organic” label may be promoted and used the same as the “100% organic” label with full rights to display the claim on the package and in marketing materials.

“Made with organic ingredients”

The label, “Made with organic ingredients” will apply to multi-ingredient agricultural products. This label certifies that the product contains at least 70 percent (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) organically-produced ingredients. Up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups may be noted on the principal display panel. A soup might say “soup made with organic peas, potatoes, and carrots” or simply “soup made with organic vegetables.”

Although not required, the producer can include information on the percentage of the product that’s organic — for instance, “contains 70% organic juice.” There’s also a very complicated part of the regulations establishing how to determine such percentages. This might be a real service for consumers and a marketing advantage for the producer, or a nightmare to both. We’ll just have to see how it plays out. The same concerns come to mind for determining the source of non-organic items.

No label if less than 70 percent organic

If a product is less than 70 percent organic, any claims to organic may be listed only in the list of ingredients. Products that are 70 percent or less organic can’t make any reference anywhere else on the package to “organic” anything. Nor can marketing materials mention that the product is “made with” an organic ingredient.

Nevertheless, the organic ingredients used must be fully certified. Theoretically, products in this category could contain as little as one percent organic, yet for those shoppers that just read ingredient listings and are unaware of the percentage possibilities, the mention of “organic” on the ingredients might influence their purchase — even if they’re buying a 99 percent non-organic product for which they may pay more. That’s the cynical view! The hoped for result is that organic manufacturers will so desire mention of “organic” on the front panel that they might just be more determined to get their product’s percentages up and over the 70 percent threshold to reap the marketing advantages of being able to say “made with organic such-and-such” on the front. We shall see.

For further reference

  • View the rule online at the USDA-NOP website at
  • the Organic Consumers Association at
  • the Organic Trade Association at

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