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USDA - Organic
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LABEL REPORT CARD
How meaningful is the label? Is the label verified? Is the meaning of the label consistent? Are the label standards publicly available? Is information about the organization publicly available? Is the organization free from conflict of interest? Was the label developed with broad public and industry input?
Highly Yes No1 Yes Yes Yes Yes
1. The meaning of the organic labels is different for food than for cosmetics and personal care products.
 
LABEL CATEGORY:
Organic, Not Genetically Modified (non-GMO/GMO free)
 
WHERE YOU'LL FIND THIS LABEL:

 FOOD
  • BEEF
  • COFFEE, CHOCOLATE AND TEA
  • DAIRY
  • EGGS
  • FRUIT
  • LAMB
  • OTHER BEVERAGES
  • PORK
  • POULTRY
  • PROCESSED FOOD AND NUTS
  • VEGETABLES, LEGUMES AND GRAINS

     PERSONAL CARE
  •  
     
    WHAT THIS LABEL MEANS:
    All organic certifiers must be accredited by the USDA. Only products containing at least 95% organic ingredients may display the USDA Organic seal in addition to the certifier’s logo.

    Standard Requirements for Organic Production

    All organic labels on food (except seafood) must meet the same USDA standards. See below for exceptions for personal care products and fish. All products (food, personal care products, clothing, etc.) displaying the USDA Organic seal are produced according to the same federal organic standards.

    Tiers of Organic Labeling

    There are three different tiers of organic labeling. The percentage level of organic ingredients determines what tier of organic labeling should be used.

    100% Organic
    According to the USDA’s national organic standards, products labeled as “100 percent organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients. Products containing 100% organic ingredients may display the USDA Organic seal and the certifier’s logo, and must identify the certifying agent.

    Organic
    To be labeled as "organic," 95% of the ingredients must be organically grown and the remaining 5% may be non-organic agricultural ingredients or synthetic substances that have been approved for use in organics by the USDA. These products are also allowed to display the USDA organic seal and certifier’s logo, and must identify the certifying agent.

    Made With Organic Ingredients
    Food products labeled as "made with organic ingredients" must be made with at least 70% organic ingredients. The remaining 30% may be agricultural products that are not produced according to the organic standards, and the ingredients list must clearly specify which products are organic and which are conventional. Non-organically produced agricultural ingredients may be processed with synthetics, but any non-agricultural ingredients appearing in the ingredients list of a “made with organic ingredients” product must be approved for use in organics by the USDA. These products must identify the certifying agent and may display the certifier’s logo on the back panel, but may not display the USDA organic seal.

    All products using the USDA organic seal (food, personal care products, clothing, etc.) are held to the same standards (a manufacturer using the USDA organic seal on a product that does not qualify would be in violation of federal law, and could be subject to civil penalties). Unfortunately, the USDA does not have authority over the use of the term “organic” in a brand name, and some companies are taking advantage of this loophole.

    Enforcement of the organic standards appears to be less rigorous on personal care products than on food products. According to the National Organic Program, any product that contains less than 70% organic ingredients is prohibited from being labeled organic. However, CU has found the term "56% organic" on the front of organically labeled shampoo. See section on Cosmetics and Personal Care for more information.

    All Foods (except seafood)

    Crop Production: Most synthetic (and petroleum-derived) pesticides and all synthetic fertilizers, genetically engineered crops and sewage sludge are prohibited for use in organic production. (Antibiotics are prohibited except for treatment of blight on apples and pears). Organic farm fields must have buffer zones to prevent contamination from adjoining lands. Harvested crops cannot be treated with irradiation or stored in bins that have been treated with synthetic fungicides or fumigants, and crops cannot be processed with chemical solvents.

    Livestock Production: Organic animals must eat organic feed that does not contain mammalian or poultry slaughter byproducts, manure, plastic pellets or synthetic growth hormones. Organic animals cannot be administered antibiotics (sick animals must be treated but must be taken out of organic production if antibiotics were given). Organic animals must have access to the outdoors when conditions permit, and ruminants (cows, goats, sheep) must be on pasture during the grazing season. Livestock housing must accommodate the animals’ natural behavior.

    Processed Foods: Foods with the organic label must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients. The remaining 5% non-organic ingredients must have been reviewed by an expert citizen panel and approved for use in organics by the USDA, and included on the official “National List of Prohibited and Allowed Substances.” All materials on the National List will be retired after five years unless reviewed again and re-listed.

    Originally, the USDA National Organic Program required that all substances used in organic production meet National Organic Program standards. The USDA has since narrowed the definition of “substance” to “ingredient” used in organic production. This means that many substances used in processing that may leave residues but that are not actually ingredients in the final product do not need USDA approval.

    Lingering Questions about Chickens and the Outdoor Access Requirements
    The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the National Organic Program explicitly prohibit continuous total confinement of organic animals, and require that year-round access to the outdoors be granted. However, the USDA has failed to enforce this standard for poultry, and continues to allow a number of industrial-scale producers who have built covered porches as “outdoor access,” inaccessible to the majority of the birds, to label their poultry products “organic.” For ruminants (dairy cows, beef cattle, bison, goats, sheep), the standards were revised in 2010 to clarify that the animals must graze on pasture during the grazing season.

    Fish
    There are no USDA standards at this time. Fish labeled as “organic” can still be sold (except in California) but may be treated with antibiotics and other drugs, and can be contaminated.

    Cosmetics, Dietary Supplements, Pet Foods and Other Products
    On October 21, 2002 the USDA announced that the National Organic Program scope would extend beyond food to many other types of products. These products include pet foods, fabrics, cosmetics, body care products, over-the-counter medications, dietary supplements, fertilizers, soil amendments; and products from greenhouse, apiculture, and hydroponic systems. Unless the product displays the USDA organic seal, organic labels and claims on these products are not backed by the same rigorous standards for foods.

    Furthermore, many personal care products and dietary supplement companies, and some food manufacturers, have made the word “organic” or “organics” part of their brand name, misleading consumers. The USDA has not taken enforcement action against this practice.

    The USDA organic seal signifies that products meet the NOP standard and are at least 95% organic, with the remaining 5% having been carefully reviewed and approved for use in organics. We advise consumers to always look for the USDA organic seal, especially on personal care products and dietary supplements, before buying. See CU’s letter to FTC on misleading organic personal care products.
     
    CONSUMERS UNION EVALUATION:
    How meaningful is the label?
    All organic labels and claims are considered to be highly meaningful labels on food. Organic certifiers are accredited by the USDA and certify to the same federal organic standards for foods. The standards for food production are rigorous and add considerable value compared to conventional food production. While the organic label on poultry products, including eggs, is meaningful, USDA does not adequately enforce the outdoor access requirement for poultry. As a result, some eggs and poultry meat labeled as organic may have come from birds that did not have true outdoor access. Consumers should contact the certifier or producer to find out how outdoor access was provided, and how much outdoor space is available for each bird.

    Organic claims are not necessarily meaningful on cosmetics, personal care products, pet foods and dietary supplements, unless the product displays the USDA organic seal. While some agricultural based ingredients in these products may be certified as organic, many personal care products claiming to be organic also contain synthetic and petroleum-derived ingredients that have not been reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board. While food labeled as organic must contain at least 70% organic ingredients (not including water), CU has noted many personal care products labeled as, for example, "56% organic."

    Is the label verified?
    Yes. Certifiers verify that farmers and producers meet the standards set by the USDA National Organic Program. USDA does not verify products but does accredit all organic certifiers.

    Is the meaning of the label consistent?
    No. While the meaning of the organic label is consistent for most food it may not be as meaningful on personal care products (standards are not consistent and not enforced). However, all products, including personal care and dietary supplements, containing the certifier’s logo and the USDA organic seal have been held to the same set of federal organic standards.

    Are the label standards publicly available?
    Yes. The standards for the USDA National Organic Program are available in the Code of Federal Regulations (7 CFR 205).

    Is information about the organization publicly available?
    Yes. All certifying organizations must be transparent.

    Is the organization free from conflict of interest?
    Yes. All certifiers must be free from conflict of interest.

    Was the label developed with broad public and industry input?
    Yes. The National Organic Program was developed with public and industry input and significant additions or changes to the program are required to have public comment.
     
    PROGRAM NAME:
    Certified Organic - USDA
     
    ORGANIZATION:
    United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
    www.ams.usda.gov/nop
     
    ORGANIZATION SUMMARY:
    HISTORY
    The National Organic Program was established by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement the Organic Foods Protection Act passed by Congress in 1990. The USDA National Organic Program was implemented October 21, 2002. All organic programs must now certify that food products follow USDA's National Organic Program.

    FUNDING
    The US Department of Agriculture is an agency of the US government and does not receive external funds.

    STRUCTURE
    The US Secretary of Agriculture makes the final decisions regarding the National Organic Program management and standards. The National Organic Standards Board is authorized to assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in organic production and advise the Secretary on any other aspects of the implementation of the Act. USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service monitors the activities of the Board. The National Organic Standards Board includes 4 organic farmers, 1 retailer, 2 organic handlers, 3 environmentalists, 3 consumers, 1 scientist and 1 certifying agent and is listed below. Each board member serves a five year term.
     
    LABEL STANDARDS:
    National Organic Program
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