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The Low-Down on Organic Foods

This article is part one of three in a series on organic foods published by Food Sentry. This entry was originally published on Feb. 6, 2013.

Over the past decade, it’s apparent that a lot of the country, if not the world, has been making a push toward a future where organic food products dominate the marketplace. The general consensus seems to be that organic food products are somehow better and safer than non-organic products. But why? What drives this consensus? Is it true? Is it as simple as “organic is better”?

Perhaps. But, as with many things, this kind of statement may be an all-too-common over-simplification of a more complicated topic. If only it were that simple. As Food Sentry analysts, we are naturally skeptical and curious and like to look deeper into the situation before making a judgment. Let’s dive in and take a look at “organic” and see what the facts tell us.

What often seems to be lacking in the dialogue regarding organics is the knowledge of exactly what organic food products are. Most people have a notion of what it means but may not have all the details. In this first part of our three-part “Organic Foods” series, we’ll be giving you the low-down on what it generally means for a product to be identified as “organic” in the U.S., and we’ll provide you with more advanced  knowledge that will help you to better judge organics on the whole.

To start things off, you should know that the organic market in the U.S. is regulated and governed under a piece of legislation called the “National Organics Program” (NOP) which is enforced and overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), not the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Within the NOP there are both general and specific guidelines that must be met by producers, including but not limited to: ingredient; contact substance and modification method specifications; product production, handling, and certification standards; and strict labeling requirements.

Ingredients, contact substances and modification methods

In general, all agricultural products that are sold, labeled or represented as “organic” in any way must not have come in contact with sewage sludge during production and must be produced without the use of:

  • synthetic substances,
  • National Organic Program-prohibited non-synthetic substances,
  • non-organic/non-agricultural and non-organic/agricultural substances used in or on processed products.

Also banned are ionizing radiation and various methods used to modify organisms and/or their growth and development in ways that cannot be achieved under natural conditions.

Although these rules apply to most substances in most situations, there are exceptions. A number of these types of substances and methods are actually permitted (typically in specific forms) for use in various applications specified within the NOP. A long list of these exceptions can be found here: Substance methods lists.

Product production, handling requirements and certification

To produce and market organic products in the U.S., an organization must become certified by a USDA-accredited organics certification agent. In order to meet the USDA-established certification standards, producers and handlers must adhere to strict production guidelines that are specified further based on the product type, e.g., animal-based or plant-based.

Additionally, certification requires that producers and handlers employ stringent pest-management practices at their facilities and that they take all necessary measures to prevent the commingling of “organic” products with “non-organic” products and prohibited substances. Organics producers and handlers are required to keep detailed logs of almost every aspect of their operations, which are reviewed annually by certifying agents, who also perform annual on-site inspections.

Important! For those readers who purchase organic products from farmers markets or other smaller food-selling operations, you may be interested to know that if the entity/individual you purchase from reports less than $5,000 annually from sales of organic products, they are not subject to the certification/verification as described above.

Labeling requirements

In our opinion, food labeling in the U.S. is probably one of the most confusing, dysfunctional and often-misleading aspects of the food market. In fact, there is a whole industry devoted to helping manufacturers learn and apply labeling regulations. Unfortunately, “organic” product labeling is no exception, although at least use of the term “organic” is better regulated than the term “natural.” What many people don’t realize is that under the NOP, there are actually four different types of labels which classify organic products:

  • “100 percent organic”
  • “Organic”
  • “Made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups)”
  • “<70 percent organic”

Each of these labels represents certain specifications and product requirements, which are as follows:

  • “100 percent organic” means: a raw or processed product that contains 100-percent organically produced ingredients (by weight or volume, excluding water or salt) that has been produced in accordance with the relevant production and handling guidelines set forth in the NOP. This product will have the words “100 percent organic” on the packaging, as well as the USDA seal and name and/or logo of the certifying agent.
  • “Organic” means: a raw or processed product that contains at least 95-percent organically produced ingredients (by weight or volume, excluding water or salt) that has been produced in accordance with the guidelines set forth in the NOP. All other product ingredients must be produced organically (unless the ingredient isn’t commercially available in organic form) or they must be non-agricultural substances or non-organically produced agricultural products produced in accordance with the relevant production and handling guidelines within the NOP. This product will have the word “Organic” on the packaging, as well as the USDA seal and name and/or logo of the certifying agent. Additionally, the packaging must display the percentage of organic ingredients in the product, and each individual ingredient that is organic in these products must be labeled as “organic” in the ingredients section of the packaging.
  • “Made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups)” means: a multi-ingredient agricultural product that contains at least 70-percent organically produced ingredients (by weight or volume, excluding water or salt) that has been produced in accordance with the guidelines set forth in the NOP. This product will display the words “Made with organic” followed by three or fewer ingredients or food groups, as well as the total percentage of organic ingredients in the product and the name and logo of the certifying agent. Additionally, the individual ingredients that are organic in these products must be labeled as “organic” in the ingredients section of the packaging. These packages will not display the USDA seal.
  • “<70 percent organic” means: a multi-ingredient agricultural product containing fewer than 70-percent organically produced ingredients (by weight or volume, excluding water or salt) that has been produced in accordance with the guidelines set forth in the NOP. Non-organic ingredients in these products are not subject to the requirements of the NOP. This product will only display the word “organic” next to organically produced ingredients in the ingredient statement on the packaging and the total percentage of organic ingredients in the product. These products will not display the USDA seal or any certifying agent’s information.

The low-down

So there it is – the gist of what it means to be an organic product in the U.S. Your (hopefully) new and/or improved knowledge should serve you well as you navigate local groceries, co-ops and farmers markets. Unfortunately, however, the puzzle of organics is still incomplete since a question lingers: what are the actual differences between “organic” and “non-organic” products?

© Food Safety News
  • Michael Bulger

    When people talk about the list of exceptions, they often leave out the fact that the list may only be turned to after a producer has attempted to address the issue by other means. An example might be a listed insecticide which, although granted an exception by NOP, can only be used after a farmer has tried to control a pest problem by introducing natural predators, rotating crops, etc. Only if practices promoted by NOP fail can they then turn to their certifying agent with a request to use a substance on the list.

    That is the way the rules are written. They don’t appear to authorize any farmer to start using the substances as a first option or without approval by a third party accredited certifying agent.

  • Lisa Malmarowski

    “Unfortunately, however, the puzzle of organics is still incomplete since a question lingers: what are the actual differences between “organic” and “non-organic” products?”

    Are you serious? Here’s one – organic farming keeps pesticides out of the environment including toxic run off into fresh water supplies. Here’s another, organic farming keeps farms workers safer by reducing/eliminating their exposure to toxic chemicals. Here’s another, I don’t want to eat something, if I can avoid it, that’s been polluted with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

    I could go on. I just can’t believe you ended and elementary article about organics with a throwaway phrase.

    • Corey

      Organic farming does not keep pesticides out of the environment – only synthetic pesticides. Organic farming still uses pesticides/herbicides/etc. but they are non-synthetic, and potentially not as effective – which actually means the farmer has to apply more than they would of a synthetic counterpart to achieve the same result. The non-synthetic chemicals may be just as dangerous as their synthetic counterparts to the environment and/or farm workers.

      • Lisa Malmarowski

        Please -’they are potentially not as effective’? This is as much rubbish as saying organics cannot feed the world. Is organic farming perfect, probably not, but it’s sure a heck of a lot better.

        • Roy

          The conventional American farmer feeds approximately 155 people. It’s rubbish to think organic farming will feed the world. Organic farmers routinely apply approved pesticides once a week to control insects at fruiting. Organic farmers must hand weed their acreage every day or they will have a reduced yield from competition with weeds. Conventional farmers treat pests with EPA approved pesticides that, according to The Council of Agriculture Science and Technology, “the aggregate acute toxicity of these residues consumed in a year has been estimated to be about the equivalent of the acute toxicity of the aspirin in one aspirin tablet, or the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee.” Due to reduced pest competition from weeds and insects, this publication concludes, “in growing these crops, the conventional farmer who uses herbicides has a great advantage over the organic farmer who does not.”

          We have so many diseases of produce here in NC, it’s honestly a good thing that we have the conventional option. Otherwise growers may face a complete crop loss if they didn’t have the option to treat for disease and weeds. I’ve worked with folks who have abandoned fields due to disease and also from weed pressure. These farmers give up and move on to another career that pays the bills, and thus do not feed the world.

          Farmers know there are harsh penalties if they don’t follow the label of the pesticides they use. Lisa, you may be paranoid enough to think the world is out to get you. I would encourage you to put your faith in the American farmer. For you to suggest produce grown in other countries is safer for consumption is mind boggling. I can’t understand how you believe that to be true.

          • DARdescendant

            I grow organically on a couple of acres which can feed quite a few but I don’t believe organics alone can feed the world. By the way, I don’t weed every day due to creative methods we have devised using biodegradable mulch and tarps in which we cut holes to plant. We do reuse them as well. Some peoplemake narrow chicken tractors to go between rows to have chickens weed for them.
            Now, I do not have a problem with this article and I know of others who are not honest re: their organic or local claims which angers me greatly when I sell my heirloom, non sprayed produce.
            I think the problem here is that many see these issues solely in terms of black and white. As a former food safety regulator with a degree in Environmental Toxicology including pesticide toxicology, IPM, etc, my views of regulation and honesty on these matters would most likely aggravate many but that is what middle of the road types do, I guess. There is room for all but it would be nice if tiny producers like myself had a bit more options like agribusiness neighbors around me and who openly make sure others here won’t sell or lease land to us as we are viewed as “the enemy”. Of course, upon my return home to west TN, my “California ” education including Stanford has cost me dearly regarding acceptance into any non ag scientic job, even entry level ones for which I was highly qualified. Thanks for reminding me why I iften wonder if there is hope for common sense on these issues.

    • Pat

      Are you serious Lisa?

      1. There is a list of approved “organic” pesticides. The word “organic” doesnt mean they dont effect you and the environment. They are still bad for you and the environment.. Organic does not in any way mean the produce is pesticide free.

      2. Organic Farms go through 1 annual audit to make sure they are complying with regulations… That leaves 364 days of unknown (sure there is record keeping/traceability but when has that ever stopped anybody). If you think a farmer is going to risk loosing millions of dollars because of a pest/fungus infestation your dreaming.. Obviously they’re going to spray, and obviously they aren’t going to tell you that.

      3. If you dont want to eat anything that has pesticides on it, grow it yourself. Also your better off buying imported produce because pesticide regulations coming across boarders are wayyyyy stricter then domestic grown/sold produce. Most domestic grown and sold produce is never tested for pesticides, organic or not, but imported produce is almost always tested.

      I could go on as well. If you waited for the next article before jumping to conclusions you probably wouldn’t of wrote your comment.

      • Livia

        1. organic pesticides are not as terrible as the concoctions that are created in labs where the industry interests have created unbelievable hazards.

        2. In the local market, there are many hoops an organic farmer has to jump through, also to prove the ‘organic quality’ of the product to all the places he/she wants to sell.
        Also, most farmers I know and worked for are amazing dedicated people that live to make this world one where we eat good food. They love what they do and believe in that. None of them is rich. Most of their farms are small. Honestly I do not know about the ‘big’ organic farms.

        3. growing your own food is your only good suggestion, but not many can do it.
        regulations abroad change from place to place. would you eat food from China?
        …oops, maybe you do…

        Lisa has my vote: the author ended a (not so promising) elementary article with a throwaway phrase. …more than ‘throwaway’ it reveals Zak knows so very little that it’ s scary we’ ll get ‘the facts’ from him.
        Maybe he should study the matter well, then write all the parts of the article, and not state silly questions like “what are the actual differences between “organic” and “non-organic” products?”.

        • Pat

          What local market hoops are you talking about? There are NONE that validate the produce doesnt have harmful concentrations of pesticides.

          “organic” pesticides are still synthesized in Labs like normal ones, they just tend to be less persistent in the environment. However the acute effects are still bad or it wouldnt be used as a pesticide.

          In my opinion organic produce is not healthier enough to warrant the price increase, increase fossil fuel use, and decrease in land efficiency. In my opinion “organic” has turned into a marketing term used to increase profit margin especially now since there is such an uneducated bandwagon following of “organic” and “natural” food.

          Im sure most local organic farmers have there customers health in mind when selling their fruit because their families eat it too. However it does not change the fact that most Organic domestic grow and sold produce is NEVER tested (maybe once a year for certification). Have you ever considered drift from other fields, proximity to roads/cities(atmospheric deposition of heavy metals), application mistakes, concentration mistakes…? This stuff causes cancer, autism, birth defects… you name it and your going to blindly trust that everything is safe because you think organic farmers are all good people that never make mistakes and dont care about making money + the FDA/USDA is only concerned about testing for ecoli and samonella because of money… you cant sue dole in 20 years if your child has cleft palate, but that doesnt mean its ok and we shouldnt test for it…

          Ive never heard of China importing produce to the U.S….maybe a few things. Produce from China would most likely be tested in origin or detained by the FDA and only released after a third party labs confirms its safe (seafood is another story, less then 1% of seafood imports are inspected).

          Most imported produce is from Mexico, and South america in general and is tested frequently because of the risk of FDA detention and being added to the red list. We have stricter regulations on importers to encourage domestic growers to sell domestic and so they have an advantage of being able to use more pesticides then foreign growers.

          • Lisa Malmarowski

            Okay – I’ll really stop after this. I want to thank you for this comment because you’ve made it clear where you stand – that you think organics are bogus and a marketing ploy. Since that’s the case I’m going to assume your articles are op ed pieces, not balanced and researched to fairly present both sides of the story.

            I’m sorry to burst your bubble but China was exporting quite a bit of frozen organic produce items into the U.S. market but when so many safety concerns were raised about products from China companies started to look elsewhere. (Cascadian Farm comes to mind).

            Interestingly, a lot of the issues you’ve raised point more and more to control of our local food supply and the ability to look your farmer or producer in the eye and decide if you want to eat their food.

            I can’t speak for others but I’m not blindly trusting things are safe. I’m also not going to lay awake at night worrying about ‘atmospheric deposits of heavy metals’ on my organic spinach. It’s all about balance for me personally and professionally, I will continue to work in an industry that is at least trying to make the world a better, safer place.

      • Lisa Malmarowski

        Yes, I am serious. I have worked in the natural products industry for more than 25 years. I’ve grown quite weary of defending organics to skeptics and naysayers.

        Where is the testing of conventional produce for pesticide residue? Why don’t the majority of organic crops receive subsidies? Where is the conversation about biodiversity in all of this with conventional farming? The ADM’s of the world are making a lot of money selling chemicals and ensuring their pesticide propaganda gets spread.

        Let’s talk about how synthetic pesticides are non-target types. This type of pesticide is not allowed in organic farming – only targeted use pesticides are.

        And what about soil quality studies?

        I don’t want to get into a war here. I simply do not believe that conventional farming is just as good or better than conventional farming as whole. Is organic farming perfect, no. Are there factory mono-culture organic farms – unfortunately yes. But it’s still better than conventional.

        I’m sorry if you took offense at my tone. I realize this was your first article for this website.

  • TheLazyGardener

    Very helpful, thanks!

  • Michelle Spice

    I am a local urban organic farmer. I can swear by my practices and produce been grown morally and ethically organic. My food is my medicine and my therapy is my lifestyle! I can only swear by me and not others so I think you should rally check out your facts and theories before you put them out there!

    Peace
    Grow good~~~~

  • Jacquie Allen

    Organic vs Not has come down to a question of who does the consumer trust – mass-scale global corporate farming (monsanto or in disguise) or small-scale local organic farmers. Saying that organic is no better nutritionally than gmo, monsanto-style farming is like saying tar-sands does not pollute.