What is Organic Certified Food?

Organic foodIt may seem like the use of the term “organic” has gone viral in recent years. The term refers to the manner in which producers (farmers / restaurants / food processors) raise or process agricultural products. Following organic farming practices means that soil and water conservation is maintained while also reducing pollution. The farmers growing organic produce and livestock do not use conventional methods to fertilize, maintain weeds, or prevent livestock disease.

Food Certifications

Certification is a credentialing process for growers of foods and agricultural products. Any business involved in food production can earn the certification including seed suppliers, farmers, food processors, retail stores, and restaurants.

Production Standards for Organic Foods

  • Avoid chemical usage such as fertilizer, pesticides, and antibiotics. Note that organic foods are NOT necessarily pesticide-free.
  • Avoid genetically modified seeds (GMOs).
  • Use land free from prohibited chemicals (typically for a minimum of 3-years).
  • For livestock, following requirements for feeding, housing, and breeding.
  • Maintain auditable production and sales records.
  • Separation of organic and non-organic products.
  • Periodic inspections.

Prohibited Substances

The USDA maintains a comprehensive listing of prohibited substances. Here’s a summary broken down from the legalese in the link.

Non-synthetic substances prohibited for use in crop production.

  • Ash from manure burning.
  • Arsenic.
  • Calcium chloride.
  • Lead salts.
  • Potassium chloride – multiple exemptions exist.
  • Sodium fluoaluminate (mined).
  • Sodium nitrate—use is restricted to a maximum of 20% of the crop’s nitrogen requirement.
  • Strychnine.
  • Tobacco dust (nicotine sulfate).

Non-synthetic substances prohibited for use in livestock production.

  • Strychnine

You may be surprised to find such a limited list of prohibited substances – we were. What is more shocking is the extent to which other substances may be introduced to the environment and still allow a product to be considered organic. That list includes herbicides, alcohols, copper sulfates, insecticides, and a wide range of acids. You can find a complete list of permitted substances here.

Food Labels

USDA OrganicThe use of various labels has become confusing to many consumers. While they all sound very similar they have different meanings. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has very specific standards in their National Organic Program. Those guidelines must be followed in order to use the organic label. Here are the most common organic labels you may have seen.

  1. 100% Organic:  The product is completely organic with no non-organic ingredients or additives.
  2. Organic:  This label means the product must contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. The remaining 5% must adhere to a list of requirements.
  3. Made With Organic Ingredients: Products must contain a minimum of 70% organic ingredients. The remaining ingredients may not be on the USDA prohibited ingredients list.
  4. X% Organic: This is used for products with less than 70% organic ingredients.

Organic Product Health Myth

The use of the term organic is in reference to the conditions in which the product or livestock is raised. It does not justify any claim or mean that an organic product is healthier than conventionally produced agricultural products. The USDA makes no such claims in the certification process.

Difference Between Conventional and Organic Farming:

Conventional Farming Organic Farming
Use chemical fertilizers. Apply natural fertilizers.
Use insecticides. Use insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to manage pests and diseases.
Use herbicides. Rotate crops, till, or mulch to manage weeds.
Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications. Give animals organic feed and allow access to outdoors. Use preventive measures to minimize disease.

Organic Enforcement

The USDA conducts inspections of farms through private and state agencies to ensure compliance. Small farms producing revenue of less than $5,000 undergo no inspections to ensure compliancy with standards. They are urged to remain honest nonetheless.

Failure to comply with the standards can result in a fine of up to $10,000 per violation.

As you can see, the industry is even more complicated than you thought. Only you can decide what products make sense for your family. Both forms of production have some levels of pesticides, but conventional products will usually have a greater exposure. Here is an article on a natural way to remove pesticides from your food.

Additionally, conventional agricultural produce will yield more crops per acre of land. Yet, organic practices do have some benefits to the land and livestock. Consider all these factors when you make your decision.

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