Deciphering the Label: USDA Certified Organic

Product labels these days have a lot going on. From “natural” to “organic,” “gluten-free” to “GMO-free,” it can be a little tricky to decipher what it all means. You’ve probably noticed the green-and-white logo with “USDA Organic” emblazoned on it on your favorite products at the market, but what does that little label really mean? We’ve got the scoop on decoding organics in our guide to making sense of “certified organic” labeling.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in charge of the National Organic Program (NOP), which regulates the organic industry, including who gets to use the round “USDA Organic” logo. According to the USDA, certified organic operations have to adhere to a set of standards that ensure that they are “protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances” in the production of their product. Although the actual federal organic regulations are very, very detailed, some of the more general regulations include the following:

  • Crops must be grown without the use of prohibited pesticides (this includes insecticides, herbicides and fungicides). Synthetic fertilizers are also prohibited.  
  • Seeds cannot be genetically modified. In most cases, seeds and planting stock must also be organic.
  • Irradiation and sewage sludge fertilizers are not allowed.
  • Most synthetic substances are not allowed.   
  • Animals are not given growth hormones or antibiotics.
  • Livestock are fed 100% organic feed, and producers meet the USDA’s animal health and welfare standards.

The USDA’s organic regulations also have provisions for sustainable soil management and land requirements that ensure that there are “buffer zones” to keep prohibited substances (think pesticides) from non-organic adjoining land. To be certified organic, a farm also has to ensure that none of the USDA’s “prohibited substances” (like prohibited pesticides and synthetic fertilizers) have been applied to the land for 3 years before the certified organic product is harvested.

In addition to its organic production standards, the USDA has rigorous labeling standards. It defines 3 major labeling categories for certified organic products:

100% Organic: for products labeled “100% Organic,” all ingredients must be certified organic, and the “USDA Organic” seal can be used.

Organic: for products labeled simply as “Organic,” all agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, but up to 5% of non-organic ingredients are allowed. The “USDA Organic" seal can be used for these products, as well.

“Made with” Organic: for multi-ingredient products with at least 70% certified organic ingredients, the USDA allows producers to indicate that the product was “made with organic [ingredient],” but it does not allow the use of the “USDA Organic” seal or the use of the more general phrase “made with organic ingredients.” They can, however, list individual certified organic ingredients in the ingredients list.

Most foods can be certified organic, including fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, grains, legumes, dairy products, eggs, and meats and poultry. Currently, there are no standards for certifying organic seafood, although the process is under review by the USDA. And it’s not just food products that can use the coveted “USDA Organic” or the other USDA organic labeling standards – cosmetics, body care products and other personal care products can also use the certified organic label and language on their packaging. The cosmetic, body or personal care product must contain agricultural ingredients and meet all of the organic standards the USDA requires. The product then must adhere to the labeling requirements we talked about above.

So how does the USDA ensure that their organic standards are being met and products’ “certified organic” labels are accurate? Third-party accreditation and certification agents around the world ensure that producers are adhering to organic production and labeling standards. Organic operations must be inspected every year. The inspectors perform rigorous auditing on records that describe the operation’s farming practices, and visit the fields of agricultural operations. They may even collect samples to conduct residue testing to ensure that organic farmers aren’t using substances like pesticides that are on the USDA’s prohibited list. The USDA not only inspects farms, but also packing facilities, processors and distributors, if necessary, to ensure that organic standards are being adhered to every step of the way.