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What Does "Organic" Really Mean?

When you see food, cosmetics, and cleaning products labeled as organic, it is referring not only to the product itself but how the produce or ingredients were grown and processed.

In a nutshell, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. With some minor exceptions, organic meat, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. While the term “natural” can be used on any product label without third party verification, a product must be certified if it is to be labeled as “organic.”

The emphasis is on farmers using renewable resources and mimicking natural ecosystems to conserve and maintain the soil and water without polluting the environment. Processed organic foods also are held to careful standards to maintain the integrity of the organic product and its ingredients. Some examples of organic farming practices include using compost, manure, and crop rotation to keep the soil healthy naturally. The healthy soil helps keep the plants resistant to disease and pests. A common phrase that characterizes organic growing is “feed the soil, not the plant”. Crops are usually grown according to the climate and organic farmers often grow a variety of crops instead of one. While organic farming doesn’t allow many dangerous chemicals to be used, certain pesticides derived from natural sources are allowed in producing organically grown food. Organic farming helps to prevent soil erosion and protects local wildlife, streams and watersheds instead of conventional farming which can harm local ecosystems with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

In order to take part in the NOP (National Organic Program) and before a product can be labeled “Organic,” a government-approved certifier must inspect the farm and facilities where the food is grown and processed to make sure the farmer is following all necessary rules to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified as well.

In addition to the inspection, a farm, processor or handler needs to submit an organic system plan that outlines all their operations. Inspectors verify that organic practices such as long-term soil management, buffering from neighboring conventional farms, and proper record keeping are being followed. Inspections also include reviewing the farm of facility's cleaning and pest control methods as well as transportation and storage.

Products that are imported from other countries but sold as “organic” in the USA have been certified to the USDA National Organic Program. Just like in the USA, their facilities are inspected annually and are subject to all the same rules and regulations that US producers and handlers are.

It is important to note that organic farming promotes humane treatment of animals. Organic animals have access to the outdoors, and living conditions are inspected annually. The organic certifier assesses the number of animals per square foot and acre and determines if it is adequate for the animals. As with all organic operations, they are subject to surprise inspections as well. There is a difference between organic and “free-range” animals as well.

If an animal is free-range it means it has access to the outdoors but there is no third party certification, and no requirements regarding feeding, health care practices, hormones and antibiotics as there is with USDA Organic certified.

Organic Product Labeling:

  • 100% Organic.

  • All organic ingredients.

  • Any processing aids must be organic.

  • No non-organic ingredients are used.

  • USDA Seal allowed.

  • Must list certification agent (i.e. Oregon Tilth).


  • At least 95% organic ingredients.

  • Remaining 5% can be non-organic allowed ingredients.

  • All agricultural ingredients must be organic unless not available.

  • USDA Seal allowed.

  • Must list certification agent.

Made With Organic:

  • At least 70% organic ingredients.

  • Remaining 30% can be non-organic allowed ingredients OR non-organic agricultural ingredients.

  • USDA Seal may not be used.

  • Must list certification agent

Products with less than 70% organic ingredients:

  • Any level of organic ingredients.

  • No restrictions on remaining ingredients.

  • No certification claims can be made.

  • USDA Seal may not be used.

  • May only mention organic in ingredient listing.

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