(printer-friendly version)

Why some organic products fall short

It’s no secret that organics often cost more than conventional products. But what might not be as clear is that some products labeled “organic” meet a higher bar than others. Even products certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture can contain non-organic, synthetic ingredients. In other cases, the term organic has little or no meaning at all.


Those and other loopholes in the USDA organic standards made national news last month in a Washington Post investigative report, Purity of Federal ‘Organic’ Label Is Questioned. Shortly after that article was published, our in-house organic expert, Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of Technical Policy at Consumers Union, was asked to weigh in, in an MSNBC interview.

Dr. Rangan emphasized that some organics, like fruits and vegetables, and meat and many dairy products, tend to meet a higher bar than organic processed foods, which can be made with synthetic ingredients. She also noted that organic standards and enforcement for personal-care products are too weak (and therefore confusing as to which products are truly organic) and non-existent for fish, despite the fact that fish labeled “organic” is being sold.

Consumers Union will continue to advocate for a stronger federal organic program. In the meantime, here’s how to tell how organic a product really is.


To judge how organic a product is, check the label:

• If you see the USDA organic seal, that means a product contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients, and as much as 100 percent organic ingredients;

• The term “100 percent organic” means just that—the product contains only certified organic ingredients;

• The term “organic” means it contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients;

•The term “made with organic ingredients” means it contains at least 70 percent organic contents.
Note that the organic portion of USDA certified organic products excludes water and salt, and the non-organic portion can contain certain synthetic ingredients.
Copyright © 2003-2012 by Consumers Union of United States., Inc., 101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers, NY 10703, a nonprofit organization. No downloading, transmission, photocopying, or commercial use permitted. Visit www.GreenerChoices.org.