What Does “Organic” Mean?
Last updated in April 2011
In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which required the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for defining organically produced agricultural products. The law was meant to create uniform standards upon which food producers could make organic claims. The USDA finally implemented the law in 2002. The labeling standards that have been set vary depending on the type of product.
The following are USDA-approved labels for produce, meat, and dairy. (There are no standards for fish.)
- Organic fresh produce—Means grown without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or sewage sludge, and can’t be grown from genetically engineered seeds or be irradiated.
- Organic meat—Means raised on all-organic feed and were never given growth hormones or antibiotics. Grazing animals must graze for a minimum of 120 days per year, and at least 30 percent of their diet must come from pasture. No feed can include animal byproducts. Can’t be the offspring of cloned animals and the meat cannot be irradiated. Beginning in July 2011, producers of organic meat must also provide animals with year-round access to the outdoors and access to pasture throughout the grazing season for their geographic area.
- Organic milk—Means it comes from animals that, for at least the 12 months prior to milk production, were fed 100-percent organic feed and weren’t given antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Organic eggs—Means they come from animals that were fed 100-percent organic feed and were never given growth hormones or antibiotics.
- Certified Naturally Grown—Means that the products were produced organically, but the operation that produced them opted to go through a different certification process than the one administered by the USDA. Typically, small organic producers that want their products certified opt for this less expensive certification process. This label says that a product meets all of the USDA’s requirements for being organic, but the label “organic” can’t be used because the producer did not take part in the USDA’s official program.
You’ll find several different labels on processed food, each with its own meaning:
- “100-percent Organic” means all the ingredients are organic. The only other allowable content is water and salt.
- “Organic” means the product contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients, not counting water and salt. Also, the product cannot contain any sulfites. The five percent of ingredients that are not organic have to be approved by the USDA. Generally, approved, nonorganic ingredients are those that aren’t yet available in organic form.
- “Made with Organic Ingredients” means the product is made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients, not counting water and salt, and does not contain sulfites, but the 30 percent of nonorganic ingredients can include nonorganic ingredients. The ingredient statement must list separately the ingredients that are organic.
- “Some Organic Ingredients” is a classification of the USDA and isn’t actually a claim that manufacturers can make on product packaging. It simply allows producers to denote which ingredients are organic in the list of ingredients.
- “Natural” isn’t a term defined by the USDA for processed food, so it doesn’t mean anything. As you’ve likely noticed, food producers use it liberally. Be aware the term “natural” is loosely defined by the USDA for meat (see below).
In addition to the USDA’s standards for how the term organic can be used in labeling food, producers can use the following, specific descriptions on a label if certain requirements have been met:
- Cage-free eggs—Means the animals that produce the eggs can’t be kept in cages, but may or may not have access to the outdoors. Cage-free eggs don’t necessarily come from organic animals—if they did, they probably would be labeled as such.
- Free-range or roaming poultry—Means the animals had access to the outdoors, but there are no standards for the minimum amount of time. Free-range or roaming poultry isn’t necessarily organic—and likely isn’t, since if it were it probably would be labeled as such. The term “cage-free” poultry means nothing, since almost all poultry animals raised for meat are kept in indoor coops and not in cages.
- Access to the outdoors—Means the animals are supposed to have at least some access to the outdoors. It doesn’t mean the meat is organic.
- No hormones administered—Is a term producers can use if they can document animals were raised without using hormones.
- No antibiotics added—Is a term producers can use if they can document animals were raised without using antibiotics.
- Natural or all-natural meat or poultry—Is supposed to mean that the products contain no artificial ingredients and are minimally processed. It’s ambiguous terminology, and producers often take advantage of the USDA’s vague rules for this label by trying to make products appear to be organic when they are not. Read the label to determine why the manufacturer is making the claim: it must explain the use of the term (for example, “no added colorings or artificial ingredients,” “minimally processed,” etc.).