What Does ‘Organic’ Mean?

by Natalie on May 11, 2011

If you buy organic food or are considering buying organic food, it is important to know what the ‘organic’ label means.

Knowing this information will make you feel more confident about buying organic. It may also help you make the decision whether or not to buy organic.

Many people are able to associate the word ‘organic’ with the farming practice of using no pesticides, but there is more to it than that.


Organic agriculture has to be grown and produced according to the principles developed by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP).

According to the USDA, “organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.”

Organic regulations also do not allow the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in food production and handling.

Farms that produce organic agriculture must go through a certification process to ensure they meet organic regulations. They are either certified by the USDA or by a USDA accredited agency. Annual inspection is required on farms that become certified organic. Only certified organic farms are able to use the USDA organic seal.

Small operations (sell less than $5,000 of organic agriculture products) do not need to be certified. They may label their products ‘organic’ if they abide by organic regulations but they are not allowed to use the USDA organic seal.

Organic Product Labeling

  • Products labeled ‘100% organic’ contain only organic ingredients
  • Products labeled ‘organic’ contain at least 95% organic ingredients

**Products meeting the requirements for ‘100% organic’ and ‘organic’ are allowed to display the USDA organic seal.

  • Products labeled ‘made with organic ingredients’ have to contain at least 70% organic ingredients. *the USDA organic seal is not permitted for use on these products.

**Products cannot be labeled organic if they contain less than 70% organic ingredients.

Companies are fined if they knowingly sell food labeled as organic and they do not meet USDA organic regulations.

Imported organic agriculture products are allowed to be sold in the U.S if they are certified by a USDA-accredited certification program. The USDA has certifications programs in several foreign countries.

Final Thoughts

If you want a guarantee on your organic agriculture, look for a certified organic seal. This means the product contains 95-100% organic ingredients, and has been certified to meet our National Organic Program regulations.

Do keep in mind that some small farms represented at farmer’s markets or CSA programs may follow organic standards but have not gone through the organic certification process. In those situations it is best to talk to the farmer directly and ask them about their farming practices.

According to Marion Nestle, author of What To Eat, another way you can verify organic produce is by looking at the code on the little round sticker. If the code starts with a ‘9’, it is certified organic.

Question: were you surprised by anything you read in this article? Why? Leave a comment in the comment section below.



Source: USDA National Organic Program Background and History Fact Sheet, 2008.

Marilyn May 11, 2011 at 9:16 am

Great information!!

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