Organic Labels: What Does the Label Really Mean?

Neelam Misra, M.D.

Neelam Misra, M.D.

By Neelam Misra, M.D.

What does the organic label mean? The National Organic Program, a division of the USDA, regulates and oversees organic farming and producing practices and sets the standards for organic labeling. In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act was passed. However, it was not until 2000 that the standards were issued. Currently, an accredited USDA-certifier verifies that organic farming and production practices are meeting the standards set by the USDA. The USDA-certifier is prohibited from having any conflict of interest.

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize environmentally sound and sustainable farming practices. As described by the USDA, organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are not given any antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic animals must eat 100% organic feed that does not contain any of the animal byproducts or growth hormones. Organic animals must have access to the outdoors.

Organic food is produced without using most synthetic or petroleum-derived pesticides and fertilizers, or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.

Organic labeling is regulated by the USDA. Currently there are 4 types of organic labels:

  1. Products labeled “100% organic” must contain 100% organic ingredients.
  2. Products labeled “organic,” must contain at least 95% organic ingredients.
  3. Products labeled “Made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.
  4. Products labeled with less than 70% organic ingredients, must not use the “organic” label, but may identify the organic ingredients in the ingredient label.

The USDA has a several different tiers of organic labels. Products which are labeled 100% organic must contain only organically produced ingredients (except water and salt). Products labeled organic must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).

The remaining percentage of the product must consist of synthetic substances approved for use by the USDA on a National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form. Products which meet the stipulations for “100 % organic” and “organic” may display these terms and the percentage of organic content on the package. The USDA seal may appear on the product packages or advertisements, but it is not mandatory.

The next tier consists of foods which contain at least 70% organic ingredients. These foods can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and list up to 3 of the organic ingredients or food groups on their display panel. The USDA seal can not be used on the package; however, the percent of organic content and the certifying agent seal may be used.

The final tier consists of foods which contain less than 70% of organic ingredients. These products can not use the term “organic” on the display panel. They may identify the organic ingredients on the ingredient statement. The penalty for using the organic label without adhering to USDA requirements is $11,000.

The USDA has received criticism for not being more stringent in its criteria. Outdoor access for animals, including poultry is vague and not well substantiated. Ingredients used in production must be organic; however, substances used in processing, which may leave trace residues, need not be organic. One should be aware that the relatively rigorous standards applied to organic labeling of food does not apply to personal care products (cosmetics, shampoo, perfume…).

The label “natural” is defined by the USDA only for meat and poultry products. “Natural” meat and poultry products must not contain artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, artificial or synthetic ingredients and are only “minimally” processed. “Minimal” processing is described as a process that does not fundamentally alter the raw product.

The USDA does not have a verification system in place to monitor the use of the label “natural”. Also, there are no restrictions on the use of other labels, such as “free-range,” “sustainably harvested,” or “hormone-free.”

For More Info go to: USDA and eco-labels

Neelam Misra, M.D. is board certified in both pain management and physical medicine & rehabilitation. Dr. Misra has done research in complementary medicine including a study looking at the effects of music therapy on pain and anxiety in spinal cord injured patients, and she is licensed to practice acupuncture. Dr. Misra has developed a health and lifestyle website entitled En vivant, which looks at the effects of nutrition, design, music, art, and technology on health. which looks at the effects of nutrition, design, music, art, and technology on health.

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