The “organic” labeling claim is unique: Unlike most other claims, no producer or company can represent their food as “organic” unless the product is certified by a USDA-accredited certification agency and is in compliance with all of the requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic standards.*
The USDA organic standards are comprehensive and promote a sustainable system of agriculture; among the many requirements and prohibitions are a requirement for responsible soil management and prohibitions on the use of synthetic fertilizers, nearly all synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, artificial hormones, and nearly all synthetic food additives.
The bottom line: should you look for this labeling claim?
Yes. “Organic” is the only production claim that is backed by federal law and regulations that set a uniform standard for what can be labeled “organic.” The federal organic standards are comprehensive, promote sustainable agriculture, and aim to minimize negative impacts on the environment and human health.
Look for this additional information on the label:
There is no additional information that consumers need to look for on a label. By federal law, a product cannot claim to be “organic” unless it has been certified. Most producers choose to use the USDA Organic seal on their certified organic products. (Note: A product with an “organic” claim but without the USDA Organic seal still has to be certified organic.)
Don't rely on these seals and claims:
What this claim means
Food can only be labeled “organic” if it is has been certified by a USDA-accredited certification agency and meets all the requirements in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic standards. Those standards are available in the Code of Federal Regulations (7 CFR 205).
The federal organic standards include requirements for:
- §205.202 Land
- §205.203 Soil fertility and crop nutrient management
- §205.204 Seeds and planting stock
- §205.205 Crop rotation
- §205.206 Crop pest, weed, and disease management
- §205.207 Wild-crop harvesting practices
- §205.236 Origin of livestock
- §205.237 Livestock feed
- §205.238 Livestock health care practices
- §205.239 Livestock living conditions
- §205.240 Pasture practices
- §205.270 Organic handling
- §205.271 Facility pest management
- §205.272 Commingling and contact with prohibited substance prevention
To summarize, the standards require that farmers foster soil fertility through natural methods. The standards prohibit synthetic materials, including pesticides and fertilizers, artificial growth hormones, antibiotics, sewage sludge, genetically engineered crops and materials derived from genetically engineered organisms, irradiation, and artificial processing aids and food additives.
For processed foods that are labeled “organic,” at least 95 percent of the ingredients must be grown on a certified organic farm. Up to 5 percent of the product can consist of non-organic agricultural materials or artificial ingredients that have been approved for a five-year period. These materials are supposed to be approved only when they are deemed essential to organic production, compatible with the principles of organic agriculture, and raise no concerns regarding their impact on human health and the environment.
Why it matters
Can you trust the claim? Is it verified?
Yes, it is verified. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a regulatory program, the National Organic Program (NOP), that is responsible for developing standards for organic products and for enforcement of the standards.
The NOP accredits and oversees more than 80 certification agencies, which certify farms and businesses that are involved in the production and processing of organic foods. These certifiers inspect every certified organic farm at least annually and can conduct unannounced inspections to assure compliance.
Certification agencies are required to test up to 5 percent of the farms and businesses they certify for pesticides and other prohibited substances. Farmers and food processors are required to submit an updated organic production or handling system plan to the certifying agency annually.
The NOP can take enforcement action when a product that is not certified organic is labeled as such and can issue a fine of up to $11,000 per violation.
This system of verification and government oversight, while better than most other labeling claims, is not perfect. Inconsistencies in the organic standards and oversight include outdoor access for organic chickens, the allowance of antibiotic use in organic chicken hatcheries, the use of certain unapproved synthetic nutrients in organic processed foods, including infant formula, and the continued approval of non-organic ingredients that raise human health concerns, such as carrageenan.
*There is one exception: if the producer has less than $5,000 in annual sales. However, even a producer with less than $5,000 in annual sales cannot represent their products as organic unless they meet all the requirements in the federal organic standards, they just don’t have to be certified by a USDA-accredited certification agency.