New organic labels and the USDA organic seal

Sound Consumer | October 2002

See below:

New organic labels and the USDA organic seal

These are the "categories" of organic and what to look for:

  • "100 percent organic" — the product may display the USDA Organic seal.
  • "Organic" — the product has 95 percent to 100 percent organic ingredients and may display the USDA Organic seal.
  • "Made with" organic ingredients — the product has 70 percent to 95 percent organic ingredients. The label may include the words "Made with (listing up to three organic ingredients)" on the front panel or main label. The label may not display the USDA Organic seal. Image of finger pointing to a label on a food package.
  • Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients may only list the organic ingredients on the ingredient label, not on the front panel, and may not display the USDA Organic seal.
  • All products that use organic ingredients must provide the name and address of the USDA accredited certifier.
  • The appearance of the USDA organic seal will phase in as old food labels run out of stock and manufacturers start using new ones.

"Why won't the USDA seal appear on all labels right away?"

Products entering the stream of commerce before October 21 will not have to be relabeled.

The USDA considers all organic products that are sold, labeled, or represented as organic prior to October 21 to be "in the stream of commerce." They may enter the marketplace as organically produced until the supply existing on October 20 is exhausted. The labeling of such products does not have to be in compliance with the national organic standards.

After October 21, when the national standards take full effect, all products that are sold, labeled, or represented as "100 percent organic," "organic," or "made with organic (ingredient)," must be produced and handled in compliance with the new USDA national organic standards.

Non-USDA organic agricultural products shall not carry the USDA seal or make any claims regarding adherence to the national organic standards.

Agricultural systems and products not yet certified by the National Organic Program

Confusion has existed for some time about whether some systems and products fall under the scope of the Organic Food Production Act, which mandated national standards. A policy statement released in May announced that the following are eligible to seek USDA certification.

  • Aquatic animals
  • Apiculture (honeybee) systems and products
  • Bodycare products
  • Cosmetics
  • Dietary supplements
  • Fabrics
  • Fertilizers
  • Greenhouse-grown products
  • Hydroponic systems
  • Over-the-counter medications
  • Soil amendments
  • Pet foods

The National Organic Standards Board has made recommendations related to mushrooms, apiculture and greenhouse production, but they've not passed through federal procedures and are not yet regulations (standards).

National organic standards primarily address foods and beverages, including alcohol, with few exceptions now. You may see a garment or cotton bag labeled "made with certified organic cotton," but you should not now see it labeled "organic cotton tee shirt."

The entire process, from the point of harvesting the organically grown cotton, to the point of sale at retail — all aspects of handling and processing — would have to meet the organic standards.

Basic aspects of organic

Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones, are treated humanely, and given access to outdoors.

Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers, genetic engineering, or ionizing radiation (irradiation).

To be labeled organic, a USDA-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to be certain the producer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.

Companies that handle or process organic food before it goes to a retail store or restaurant must be inspected and certified.

Farmers with organic sales of no more than $5,000 annually need not be certified, but must comply with all standards as though certified.

Retail stores that do not engage in handling and processing foods are not required to be certified, but must comply with all standards as though certified. Restaurants using organic ingredients are not required to be certified, but must be fully in compliance.

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