“Organic” is a meaningful label. It is verified and backed by USDA standards that are designed to promote sustainability and prohibit chemical pesticides, GMOs, irradiation, sewage sludge, and artificial ingredients (with some exceptions).
How meaningful is this label?
100% Organic: Highly meaningful. The organic label is highly meaningful for foods that are labeled as “100% organic.” These foods were produced in accordance with the organic standards and were processed without synthetic materials.
ORGANIC on produce: Highly meaningful. We also consider the organic label to be highly meaningful for unprocessed plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables. These are rarely labeled “100% organic” but simply “organic,” but would not contain synthetic or non-organic ingredients. The organic standards are highly meaningful for crop growers, who are prohibited from using nearly all synthetic pesticides, as well as all synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics (which continue to be approved for use in conventional fruit orchards), genetically engineered seed, sewage sludge and irradiation.
ORGANIC on meat, dairy, eggs and processed foods: Meaningful*. The standards are meaningful for promoting sustainable agriculture practices and eliminating toxic synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and other synthetic inputs. Given the concerns with standards and oversight over the last few years, CR no longer rates “organic” on meat, dairy, eggs and processed foods as highly meaningful but as meaningful.
The organic standards only address animal welfare in minimal ways, which is why we rate the “organic” label on animal products as meaningful and not highly meaningful. The USDA should implement National Organic Standards Board recommendations on animal welfare. We also have concerns about enforcement of the requirements to grant outdoor access, especially for organic poultry. The organic label also does not address fair trade practices or conditions for farmworkers (“fair trade”) or proximity of production to point of sale (“local”). For additional value, consumers should look for the organic label in combination with a meaningful or highly meaningful animal welfare label,** and a meaningful or highly meaningful fair trade label.***
*Note: see “Inconsistencies for antibiotic use” section below
**Note: meaningful and highly meaningful animal welfare labels include: Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane and Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Steps 3-5+.
***Note: meaningful and highly meaningful fair trade labels include: Fair for Life, Food Justice Certified, Fair Trade Certified and Fairtrade.
For processed foods, our 2014 consumer survey shows that an overwhelming majority of consumers think that the organic label should mean no artificial materials were used during processing (91%) and that the product contains no artificial ingredients (89%). The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) permits the addition of artificial ingredients if they are approved and appear on the National List, and materials should only be added to the National List, for a five year period, if they meet certain criteria, including that they should be considered “necessary to the production and handling of the product because of the unavailability of wholly natural substitute products.”
However, organic processed foods, including organic infant formula, containing artificial and non-organic ingredients that have not been approved for use in organic foods now appear on store shelves. We have filed a complaint with the USDA regarding unapproved ingredients in organic baby food, but the USDA has not taken enforcement action.
Moreover, we consider many of the artificial and non-organic ingredients that have been approved for use in organic foods to be not essential.[expert opinion] Some are added to recreate texture, color or flavor. Other non-organic ingredients have been approved even when concerns have been raised regarding their potential negative impacts on human health (e.g., carrageenan).
Is the label verified?
Farms and food processing facilities are inspected by a third-party certification agency. Inspections are not conducted by the USDA; rather, the USDA accredits certifying agencies to certify to the USDA organic standards.
Organic standards require annual inspections of farms and processing facilities, and random inspections are possible. Farmers and food processors are also required to submit an updated organic production or handling system plan to the certifying agency annually.
The standards also require random testing for pesticide residues or environmental contaminants. Each certifying agency is required to test samples from at least 5% of the operations it certifies on an annual basis.
Is the meaning of the label consistent?
Any product with the USDA Organic seal must meet the USDA standards for food and agricultural products. On food, the “organic” and “made with organic” labels, even without the USDA Organic seal, are consistent in meaning. Products other than food can be labeled “organic” even if they do not necessarily meet the organic standards. Products with the USDA Organic seal must meet all the requirements in the standards.
Foods can be labeled “organic” (without the use of the USDA Organic seal) only if they meet all the requirements in the standards, but this does not apply to non-food products such as textiles, personal care products and mattresses.
Recent Inconsistencies Unresolved
Inconsistencies for poultry and eggs: The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the USDA regulations 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.”
Inconsistencies for personal care and cosmetics: Personal care products can display the USDA Organic seal if they meet all the requirements in the federal organic regulations for food. However, unlike foods, non-food products can claim to be “organic” without being certified to the USDA organic standards, without facing enforcement action from the USDA. For non-food products, consumers should look specifically for the USDA Organic seal.
Inconsistencies for antibiotic use: There is a legal allowance for use of antibiotics in poultry hatcheries, where antibiotics can be administered in the egg and on the first day of the chicks’ life.
Inconsistencies for artificial ingredient approval: While artificial ingredients were supposed to be approved for a five-year period and then “sunset,” there have been a number of cases where these ingredients have been relisted or their use extended well beyond five years, even when human or environmental concerns have been raised.
Recent Inconsistencies Resolved
Access to pasture for ruminants: 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.
Antibiotic use in apple and pear production: When the organic standards were first developed, antibiotics were prohibited except in day-old poultry chicks and apple and pear orchards. The NOSB voted in 2013 and 2014 to prohibit the use of the antibiotics tetracycline and streptomycin in organic orchards. This prohibition took effect in October 2014.
Organic labeling of fish: There are no organic standards for fish or other seafood at this time. Even if raised to international organic standards, fish should not be labeled as “organic” when sold in the U.S. We continue to find seafood in U.S. stores labeled as “organic.”
Are the label standards publicly available?
Is information about the organization publicly available?
The organic standards are federal regulations of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA is a federal executive department. Information about the department’s leadership and financial information is publicly available at www.usda.gov.
Is the organization free from conflict of interest?
Standards development: Yes. Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture involved in writing and updating the organic standards are subject to the government’s conflict of interest rules.
Members of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a civilian, multi-stakeholder group, advise the USDA on organic standards but do not have final decision making authority and are prohibited from voting on matters in which they have a financial interest.
Verification: Yes. The organic standards require that accredited certifying agencies prevent conflicts of interest in several ways, including not certifying an operation if the certifying agent has a financial interest in the operation.
Was the label developed with broad public and industry input?
Standards development: The organic standards are federal regulations, which are required by law to be shared with the public and opened for public comment before they are finalized and adopted. Before the organic standards were adopted in 2002, the public had multiple opportunities for public comment. The final standards addressed many of the concerns that had been raised by public comment.
Standards updates: Updates to the standards are typically reviewed and recommended by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a 15-member expert citizen panel that meets biannually to vote on recommendations. These meetings are open to the public, and citizens have the opportunity to comment both in writing before the meeting and in person during the meeting. The NOSB sends its recommendations to the National Organic Program of the United States Department of Agriculture, which again shares a draft of any proposed changes to the organic standards with the public, and accepts written public comments.
****Note: There have been instances where the USDA has initiated policy changes (such as materials review) which have not gone through public notice and rulemaking–which have been opposed by several groups including Consumer Reports.
Federal law (the Organic Foods Production Act or OFPA of 1990) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations require that any food bearing the USDA Organic label or any other organic label on the front of the package must have been produced on farms and processed in facilities that adhere to a comprehensive set of federal standards designed to promote sustainability and minimize synthetic inputs in farming and food production. The USDA Organic standards promote soil fertility through natural methods.
USDA organic standards technically prohibit synthetic materials including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, artificial growth hormones, antibiotics (See “Inconsistencies for antibiotic use” section below), sewage sludge, genetically engineered crops, irradiation, and artificial processing aids and food additives. Most of these practices are followed rigorously; however, the list of artificial ingredients approved for use in organic is growing and the 5 year sunset period for these materials is under current threat (see “inconsistencies” section below).
Foods can carry the “100% Organic” label if all ingredients are certified organic and were not processed with any synthetic materials.
At least 95% of the ingredients in a processed food labeled “organic” must be grown on a certified organic farm. Up to 5% of the product can consist of non-organic agricultural materials or artificial ingredients that have been approved for a 5-year period. These materials are supposed to be approved only when they are deemed essential to organic production, compatible with the principles of organic agriculture, and raise no concerns regarding their impact on human health and the environment. The organic regulations specify that synthetic and other non-organic substances should not be approved for use in organic foods if their primary use is as a preservative or to recreate or improve flavors, colors, textures, or nutritive value lost during processing. However, many ingredients whose primary purpose is to recreate textures, colors or flavors have been approved and appear in certified organic processed foods.
“Made With Organic”
If a product makes the “Made with Organic [specified ingredients]” claim, it means that at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic. The remaining 30% of ingredients can come from conventional farms, which means they can be produced with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, chemical processing aids and other inputs that are prohibited on organic farms and processing facilities. The 30% conventional ingredients cannot, however, be genetically engineered, produced with sewage sludge, or irradiated. The Certified Naturally Grown label means that the farm where the food is grown uses the same farming methods as certified organic farms but is not independently verified by a USDA-accredited certification agency and not subject to the legal enforcement of the USDA. The CNG label arose when farmers who did not want to participate in the USDA Organic program sought an alternative certification system with fewer requirements for recordkeeping and lower certification costs.
For More Information
Link to USDA National Organic Program website
The USDA organic standards require that any food labeled “organic” must have been produced on farms and processed in facilities that adhere to a comprehensive set of standards designed to promote sustainability and minimize synthetic inputs in farming and food production. The USDA Organic standards promote soil fertility through natural methods.