Understanding the USDA Organic Label

Understanding the USDA Organic Label

You’ve heard the saying, “We are what we eat”, but do we really pay attention to everything we eat? The organic food industry is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) to ensure that agricultural products marked as “Organic” would meet consistent and uniform standards.

Organic Definition

The term “organic” literally means “relating to or derived from living matter.” In agriculture, it refers to the way products are grown and tested. USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines, which include many things like soil quality, animal raising practices, weed control, pest control, and the use of additives.

USDA Requirements for Food

There are three labels to look for and each is a little bit different.

  1. 100% organic: If 100% of the ingredients are organically grown and produced
  2. Organic: If 95%-99% of the ingredients are organically grown and produced
  3. Made with organic ingredients: If at least 70% of the ingredients are organically grown and produced

Produce can be labeled organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that has no prohibited substances, such as pesticides, for three years prior to harvest.  Meat can be labeled organic when specific regulations are met, including the animals are raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behavior (cows should graze and roam in pastures, not barn cells), the animals are not administered antibiotics or hormones, and they are fed a 100% organic diet.  

Organic Exceptions

When it comes to processed foods, the USDA organic standards prohibit artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors and require that any other ingredients in the food must be organic. There are a few exceptions to this rule, like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods.  Most of these products will use the USDA certified organic label, but most of these products fall into the 3rd category above, with at least 70% of the ingredients being organic.

Labels Can Be Misleading

Watch out for unofficial labels. Any company can say their products and foods are organic, but look out for the USDA Certified Organic Label if you want something that follows the guidelines outlined above.

Organic Personal Care Products

Unfortunately, the use of the word organic on personal care products is not held up to the same rigorous standards as an organic label on food – unless the company is USDA Certified Organic.  We hope understanding the USDA organic label allows you to make informed choices about the food you purchase!