Label lowdown: “USDA Organic”

This article was originally published in November 2020

Many labeling claims are vaguely defined or virtually meaningless, such as “natural” beef or “happy” hens. The word “organic,” by contrast, is precisely defined and subject to federal enforcement—the product of rules implemented in 2002, developed in response to the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal provides many specific guarantees, but shoppers sometimes think its requirements are even broader than they are. (Two new certifications that are not backed by governmental authority, Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) and Real Organic Project (ROP), start with USDA organic certification as their base and add more requirements see “New Labels Hope to Enhance What ‘Organic’ Can Mean”.)

Our partners at Consumer Reports rate the USDA organic seal as “excellent” overall, offering this assessment:

Main benefits: Minimal pesticide residues. 

  • Animals raised without antibiotics or added hormones.
  • No genetically modified (or engineered) organisms (GMOs).
  • Strong standards, backed by federal law.
  • Annual on-farm inspections required.

Limitations: Weak animal welfare requirements.

Overview: By federal law, organic foods must meet Department of Agriculture standards regarding the way crops are farmed, how farm animals are raised, how foods are processed, and which types of ingredients can be used in the product. This applies even if the product only lists “organic” on the label without using the USDA Organic seal. Farmers must maintain or improve soil and water quality, and are prohibited from using most pesticides, as well as antibiotics and growth hormones for farm animals. For food processors, organic standards require that they use at least 95% organic ingredients in their products. (If the label states “made with organic [ingredients],” it means at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic.) In addition, most of the synthetic processing aids and artificial ingredients that are allowed in conventional foods are prohibited in organic ones.

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