Guidelines for Organic Products: What Do They Mean for You?
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Guidelines for Organic Products: What Do They Mean for You?

Organically grown produce commands a prominent spot and premium price at the market. But do you really know what the word "organic" means? Government regulations define the term and helps consumers know what they're getting when they select organic products.

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), sales of organic agricultural products in the United States grew from a mere $78 million to $6 billion between 1980 and today, and the number is projected to continue to grow by 20% a year. This makes organic foods one of the fastest growing segments of the retail market. And all this is despite the fact that, until 2002, we had no national definition for the term "organic."

What's in a Name?

For some folks, organic means more nutritious. For others, organic means cleaner and safer. But whether organic foods are more nutritious, better, or safer isn't easy to prove.

For still other proponents of the organic way, the key benefit is the effect on the environment. These people recognize organic products as having been grown or made using principles and practices that are less likely to pollute or damage our air, soil, and water. And although organic farming practices may include benefits that go beyond the plants and animals grown and harvested using these practices, they can—and do—vary. Complicating the situation even further is the fact that most states have their own laws regulating organic practices and products.

These myriad meanings and methods have not gone unnoticed, especially by the people involved in producing and promoting organic goods or by those wishing to purchase such goods. That's why more than 10 years ago, farmers, consumers, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), and other organizations asked the federal government to establish a national organic standard.

Consequently, in 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act and charged the USDA with establishing an organic "rule" or standard. Since then, and as part of this effort, USDA has been trying to define "organic," as well as to develop production and labeling standards for organic products. The department finally revealed its first version of the rule in December 1997 and asked the public for comments.

And comments they got—more than 275,000 comments and suggestions poured in from farmers, food processors, trade organizations, and consumers. It was the largest response ever to a USDA proposal.

A Rose by Any Other Name...

Although the first draft provided dozens of guidelines on growing practices, food processing techniques and additives, as well as regulatory matters, it did not include USDA positions on several thorny issues, such as irradiation of foods, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the use of sewage sludge for fertilizer. In short, there was considerable disagreement between what the USDA was proposing organic should mean and what thousands of interested parties thought it meant. So, the USDA tried again.

Better the Second Time Around

Fortunately, the second draft of the ruling came along faster than the first. On March 7, 2000, then USDA Secretary Dan Glickman announced that a revised proposal for national organic standards was now available for comment.

"We put together an organic standard that is easy to understand and easy to explain," says Glickman. "Not only that, [but] when it is finally in place, it will be the most comprehensive, strictest organic rule in the world, which is the way our consumers want it."

It's also pretty much the way the OTA and many others in the "organic" community want it. Katherine DiMatteo, Executive Director of the OTA, says that "the current version reflects very much organic industry expectations and practices."

Organic, Through and Through

The new rule, which took effect in October 2002, describes in detail the methods, practices, and substances that farmers and producers can use when they grow and handle organic crops and processed items. The rule also lists prohibited substances and practices, including those controversial three—GMOs, sludge fertilizer, and irradiation.

Milk provides a good example of how comprehensive the standard is. DiMatteo says that "to be labeled 'organic,' milk can only come from cows fed 100% organic grain. So the grain cannot come from genetically engineered seed and it cannot have been fertilized with sludge. The cows may not be given antibiotics or growth hormones. The milk can be pasteurized or fortified with vitamins, but it cannot be irradiated or shipped in tankers that carry other milk or bottled in between runs of nonorganic milk."

Similar restrictions apply to livestock raised for organic meat and fiber products used in organic clothing. DiMatteo also points out that, "No fish—saltwater, freshwater or farmed—can be called organic under the regulation at this time."

Although she believes it will be to everyone's benefit in the long run, DiMatteo notes that the high standards set by the regulation may initially prove a challenge to the organic industry, particularly smaller operations. This is because the high demand for some organic products could result in a shortage of approved materials needed in their production.

However, the regulation also includes assistance to help organic farmers. There is money slated for research on organic agriculture, a pilot organic crop insurance program, and a cooperative research program with the University of California on organic production and the marketing of organic fruits and vegetables that's meant to help organic farmers work together to increase sales.

Look for the Seal of Approval

Because this is a federal regulation, the new standard provides consumers a definition of organic that applies nationwide. DiMatteo adds that this version of the standard "will give consumers the confidence they've been seeking in the organic label that all products, no matter where they've been grown and who has processed them, have followed the same strict requirements."

In that respect, the organic standard is like the USDA "prime" rating for meat. The USDA organic seal on a product tells you that state or private authorities certify the product as such. There are four categories of organic products on your grocer's shelves:

  • "100% Organic" (nothing in these products can be nonorganic).
  • "Organic" (95% or more of the ingredients must be organic).
  • "Made with organic ingredients" (70%-95% of ingredients are organic)
  • For products with less than 70% organic ingredients, the word organic may only appear on the ingredient information panel.

The Journey, Not the Destination

As for organic products being better or safer, Secretary Glickman has pointed out that "the organic classification is not a judgment about the quality or safety of any product. Organic is about how it is produced."

So, for the USDA at least, it's the journey and not the destination that is important. As for whatever organic means to you, now you have at least one point of reference in your journey through the product-label maze.


USDA National Organic Program

Organic Trade Association

Organic Consumers Association


Dietitians of Canada

Health Canada

Last reviewed June 2008 by Dianne Scheinberg MS, RD, LDN

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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