What Does ‘Organic’ Really Mean?

Posted on December 12, 2010


As the very first blog entry, I thought it would be fitting to write an introductory entry on just what exactly ‘organic’ means.

When I was in the States (currently, I’m in Korea and to those who always ask…no, I’m not from North Korea..!), I mostly shopped at Whole Foods Market, trusting its promise to deliver organic and natural food. But with organic products being the fastest growing segment in agricultural market and its 22% increase in sales from last year to boast, even a supermarket that doesn’t focus on catering natural and organic products have plenty of organic options. So, my occasional trip to nearby supermarket Hannaford allowed me to buy organic ingredients for my night’s pasta.

Whether at Whole Foods or at Hannaford, what I always did when buying food was to check for the green or black USDA organic seal. This seal ensures that the food was made under the organic standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In 1990, congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 which required the UDSA to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products. Along with OFPA regulations, the National Organic Program (NOP) work together to make sure that organic agricultural products come from farms and handling operations certified by a State or private entity that has been accredited by USDA. Hence, organic standards may differ depending on your state because most certifications allow some chemicals and pesticides.

The NOP is the one that sets the standards for production and handling, labeling, certification standard, and accreditation standard. For organic crop production, it must be raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers (so non-organic operation farmers use sewage sludge..?!). Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed, given access to the outdoors, and given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Also, genetic engineering is prohibited.

As for the labeling standard, there are several categories depending on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product. Products labeled ‘100% Organic’ must contain only organically produced ingredients. Those labeled ‘Organic’ must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients. Those that meet the above two categories are given the USDA organic seal. Processed products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” but those less than 70% isn’t considered organic and cannot have the organic seal. For the 95% organically produced ‘organic’ product, the remaining 5% can be made with non-organic ingredients. Initially the approved non-organic ingredients were cornstarch, water-extracted gun, kelp, unbleached lecithin, and pectin. However, as the organic market is growing companies are requesting the USDA to expand the non-organic list. As of June 9th, 2007, 38 non-organic ingredients were added among the 600 requests that USDA received.

The certification standards establish the requirements that organic production and handling operations must meet to become accredited by USDA-accredited certifying agents. So, the USDA is a big overarching system and the USDA-accredited agents are the ones deciding whether a product is organic or not. The certification standards describe the qualifications that must be met by organic producing farm/company. For example, the farmland has to be free from synthetic chemicals for a number of years (often three or more), the owner must keep a detailed written production and sales records, maintain strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products, and undergo periodic on-site inspection.

Lastly, the accreditation standard is established so that certifying agents act consistently and impartially in enforcing organic standards on producers.

This topic can get infinitely detailed right down to its scientifically funky names and dry legal phrases but I think this will inform the average person wondering the meaning behind the USDA organic seal. So long story short, ‘organic’ means organic up to a certain extent. Unless it says 100% organic, we are all exposed to some level of chemicals and synthetic whatnots that we created (ironic, no?). I suppose this is as close as you can get to having a natural produce experience. Of course, you can make your own organic garden but I think the majority of people are busy being slaves to technology…

Posted in: Food