Understanding the ‘Certified Organic’ Label

Reader Contribution by Vicki Mattern
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What does Certified Organic mean on food labels?

The “Certified Organic” label is, at its core, a consumer protection law. It’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) assurance that you’re buying food that has been produced and processed according to its National Organic Program (NOP) standards:

Vegetables and fruits have not been produced using irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs); livestock have been fed 100 percent organic feed without antibiotics or growth hormones, and were raised with at least some access to the outdoors; and multi-ingredient processed foods must contain at least 95 percent Certified Organic ingredients.

The Certified Organic label is backed by regulations developed by the USDA and the National Organic Standards Board, an advisory committee of consumers, environmentalists, farmers and scientists. Part of the board’s job is to advise the USDA regarding the “National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.” But it aims to be more than an organic referee that rules a farming substance or practice either “fair” or “foul play.” The board also makes recommendations about sustainable agricultural practices, and if its recommendations are approved by the USDA, the law requires farmers who seek organic certification to demonstrate that they follow such methods.

To obtain organic certification, applicants must have their operations reviewed by a third-party certifying agent. The review process includes annual inspections, and inspectors can request samples of soil, water, and plant and animal tissue to test for chemical residues. Producers must also pay certification fees that range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. For some growers, the financial cost and the rigorous path to gain a Certified Organic label are daunting. The law thus makes allowances for small operations. Producers who market less than $5,000 of organic products annually may call their products organic (but not Certified Organic) without going through the certification process, provided they comply with other regulations. (For more information on certification requirements, go to the USDA’s National Organic Program FAQ). Labeling a product Certified Organic without receiving USDA authorization is illegal and can result in prosecution and a fine.

Although some of the USDA’s decisions have been criticized by organic watchdog groups (such as The Cornucopia Institute), we’ve come a long way in organic food labeling. Before the national organic standards went into effect in April 2001, consumers had no way of knowing whether food labeled as organic was in fact produced using sustainable, environmentally sound practices. Today, we can know that farmers have produced food without using toxic pesticides, harsh fertilizers, and unsustainable — and sometimes inhumane — systems. Year-over-year increases in sales show that more and more consumers prefer to eat Certified Organic products.

Photo by SuperStock/Universal Images Group: Organic standards guide consumers who want to choose sustainably produced food.

Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .