USDA Organic Definition: What The Familiar Green And White Label Means For Consumers

by Nicola Temple on October 12, 2011

The little green and white ‘USDA Organic’ label is often one of many adorning the packaging of organically certified products. This plethora of certifications can sometimes be confusing.  In this article, I outline the standards behind the label, as well as the USDA Organic definition. I hope you find it helpful in clarifying what it means when a product bears this label.

First, some history 

In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act was enacted to establish national standards for the production and handling of organically labelled foods.

The Act authorized the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish the National Organic Program (NOP), which is tasked with setting standards, certifying production, as well as compliance and enforcement.

A couple of definitions

Often, people have different interpretations for words and phrases. For instance, my idea of sustainability may differ from my neighbor’s. So, to be sure everyone is on the same page, the USDA National Organic Standards Board provides some definitions relevant to the organic label (source):

  •  “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”
  • “‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.”
USDA organic definition

Defined standards make for a clear USDA Organic definition. CC image courtesy of photologue_np on Flickr.

The summary of standards for USDA Organic certification

Any product bearing the USDA Organic certified label must have 95% organic certified content.

Crops – no organically certified food can be subjected to irradiation technology commonly used to kill microorganisms in non-organic products. USDA organic certification does not allow for the use of sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, or prohibited pesticides on crops and no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be used.

Livestock – rearing of USDA organic certified stock must meet strict animal health and welfare standards. The use of antibiotics or growth hormones is prohibited and animals must be fed 100% organic feed. It is also a requirement that animals have access to the outdoors.

Multi-ingredient foods – If 95% or more of the ingredients are certified organic, the product can be labelled as USDA organic. In cases were less than 95% of the ingredients are certified organic, the product can claim that it has been made with certified organic ingredients.

You can view a full list of the regulations here and learn more about USDA Organic standards in this video:

How is USDA Organic certification regulated?

The NOP regulates all crops, livestock and agricultural products certified to USDA Organic standards. They verify that producers and products are compliant with the standards and will conduct investigations and carry out enforcement where necessary. The NOP also conducts audits of more than 90 organic certification agencies operating globally to ensure they are properly certifying organic products.

The USDA Organic certification label ensures that the product has been produced to a set of standards that incorporate practices that promote the cycling of resources, conserve biodiversity, and support ecological sustainability.

Of course, there are other considerations to factor into your product purchases, such as cost or how far a product has traveled. Despite a product being USDA Organic certified, it may carry a heavier carbon footprint than another non-certified but locally grown product due to transport. However, if all else is equal, organic products are the more Earth-friendly option.

I hope this article has clarified the meaning behind the green and white label. When buying products with the USDA Organic label, you can be reassured that according to USDA Organic definition, you are purchasing products that promote more sustainable and more ethical methods of agriculture.

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