Organic… from apples and bananas to soap and clothing, it’s everywhere. Even major corporations have jumped on the bandwagon. I can now buy Organic Rasin Brain from Kellogg’s or browse through Wal-Mart’s selection of Organic foods.

With this organic frenzy in front of our eyes, are we losing sight of what the bigger picture is? What does organic mean today anyway?

I remember one conversation on organic foods I had with a friend, he attempted to finish the conversation by saying “Well… isn’t everything organic anyway?!”

My handy dandy dictionary tells me that Organic is defined as: characteristic of, pertaining to, or derived from living organisms: organic remains found in rocks.

Derived from living organisms… well… the dictionary is not necessarily how the USDA defines their use of organic labels. So how do they?

Decoding the Organic Label

The USDA defines “Organic” as a production system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act and regulations to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.

Clear right? Yeah I didn’t think so…

What the USDA is trying to say is that organic means farming that promotes and enhances diversity among the plants and animals that farm raises. And keeps in mind that what they do should not disturb life spans and soil biological activity .

To be certified organic your farm must also have minimal use of off-farm inputs and have on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.

Sounds great! So every organic product I buy means all parts of it went towards enhancing ecological harmony?! Awesome!

…Well not exactly, this is where all those labels come in:

100% USDA Certified Organic

USDA Certified Organic Label

When the product you are buying states that the product is 100% USDA Certified Organic and bares the green and white label above you can rest assured that everything that makes up that product, whether its an apple or boysenberry-flavored apple juice concentrate, is certified organic. Excluding: water and salt.

Products that meet these requirements can display the green and white label, the certifying agent’s logo, and state that the product is 100% organic.


Products listed as “Organic” must have 95% of the ingredients used certified organic (again excluding water and salt). The National Organic Standards Board must approve the remaining 5% or the remaining 5% must be non-organically produced agricultural products that are Not available in organic form. This would include products and ingredients like kelp and cornstarch.

Goods labeled “Organic” can bare the USDA organic label and/or another certifier’s logo.

Made with Organic Ingredients

Goods that boast this line must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. The product can list up to 3 of the organic ingredients on the front panel. The remaining 30% of ingredients must also be evaluated by the National Organic Standards Board.

Products that are labeled “Made with Organic Ingredients” cannot not display the USDA organic label, they can however display the certifier’s logo.

Organic Ingredients listed on ingredient panel

While looking through the ingredients used in your favorite soup or cereal you may notice that some of the ingredients are labeled Organic. This can be done by placing an astrisk next to the ingredient and the description below or simply saying “Organic strawberries” in the ingredients list.

Products with such ingredients can only display organic in the ingredients list. They cannot display the USDA seal or a certifier’s label.

Natural vs. Organic

Please understand that Natural and Organic are not the same thing. They are not interchangeable. Neither are terms like free-range, hormone-free, etc. It’s a lot like seeing “Home made” on a frozen pie.

Ok, so you get it now right? But what is this Organic Seal telling us– maybe more importantly what is it not telling us? Here is a taste of what the organic seal does and does not do

The Organic Seal

1.) The seal gives you peace of mind on how your food was produced. The ceritfication includes strict requirements about the farm’s practices. This includes what is allowed for fertilizer and pesticide. The certification process also requires that certifiers visit the farm to see the organic process with their own eyes. However, the seal does not guarentee the food was grown without any pesticides. Any pesticide used must be deemed safe by the National Organic Standards Board, this includes natural based and synthetic pesticides.

2.) The organic seal protects the health of farmers and farmworkers. Their exposures to toxic chemicals is dramatically reduced when working with an organic process. However, the seal does not guarantee social justice. Becoming certified organic does not secure your wage or other working conditions. The best guarantee of worker protection is a union label.

3.) The organic seal means that animals were raised more humanly than on industrial farms. Organic certification on farms with animals requires that the animals have access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, fresh air, and direct sunlight. Farmers must use organic feed and cannot use antibiotics or hormones in livestock production. However, the seal does not guarantee that the animals were raised humanly. An excerpt from Grub: ideas for an urban organic kitchen:

While the vast majority of organic farmers are ethical, a few companies are profiting from the organic seal but pursuing some pretty shady practices. Some have created massive industrial organic dairy farms, for instance, where animals technically have access to pasture, but spend most of their time living in overcrowded factory-farm conditions.

How does the USDA keep the seal protected?

When someone tries to sell a product labeled “Organic” that has not been certified under the USDA that someone can be fined up to $11,000 for each violation.

That fine seems like a whole lot of money. Similar in expense in both time and money is the process of becoming certified organic. Keep in mind when shopping that the label isn’t telling you the whole story, maybe your local Farmer Joe operates his farm organically but cannot afford certification. Maybe Farmer Sue has decided she doesn’t want to become certified. Maybe at this point most of the farms that can afford to be certified organic are major corporations like Coca Cola and General Mills. This will be discussed in Demystifying “Organic” Part 2 of 3.

Ultimately the buck stops with you. Now that you understand what the Organic seal means and doesn’t mean you have the power to support or not support organic goods.

As for me? I love the idea of Organic, but I don’t think we have it quite right yet. I’d rather talk to Farmer Joe and hear from his mouth how he handles his lettuce or parsley than sit back and hope the berries I’m buying from Big, Co. really are enhancing ecological harmony.



Lappe, Anne. Grub: Ideas for an urban organic kitchen. The Penguin Group, New York: 2005.