What Does ‘certified Organic’ Food Really Mean?


These days, steering through the grocery store can seem like a barrage of vocabulary words. Cage-free chicken, grass-fed beef, non-GMO granola bars—it’s a lot to remember and process.

But there is one term that can help simplify your shopping runs: “Certified Organic.”

The official USDA Certified Organic seal.

“Certified Organic” is strictly regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program, which is run by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. First created in 1990 with the Organic Foods Production Act, the National Organic Program oversees the standards, permitted substances, inspection, and labeling of any product with the “USDA Certified Organic” label. Whether you’re picking up cheese, steak, or a pair of wool socks, any U.S.-raised product marketed as Certified Organic goes through the National Organic Program.

And unlike some food labels, which can be approved with far less oversight, “Certified Organic” is backed by serious regulatory muscle: Farmers that are Certified Organic receive at least one announced visit from USDA inspectors each year, as well as unannounced visits, who test for prohibited substances and humane animal practices. It’s a big business, too: Since organic food was first officially designated in 1990, the industry has been growing by 20% each year.

But what exactly does it mean for food to be organic? Here, we’ve rounded up the essential background you need to know into three categories: plants, animals, and organic foods made with multiple ingredients.

Organic Crops

If you’re buying anything that comes from plants—whether it’s a tomato, a t-shirt made from organic cotton, or even seeds—it’s subject to the USDA’s organic crop standards. What that means:

They’re non-GMO. Organic crops can’t be grown from genetically engineered seeds (which is generally what people mean when they refer to non-GMO). Organic crops can, however, be bred with traditional methods.

They’re farmed with traditional methods. The National Organic Program requires “cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity,” according to the USDA. That extends to issues like soil quality, pest and weed control, and handling of waste.

They come from land that’s been organic for three years. Even if a farmer decided to switch from pesticides to organic production, the farmer would have to wait at least three years before marketing crops as organic.

They’ve only been subjected to strictly regulated products. Only approved synthetic chemicals on the USDA-regulated “National List” may be applied to organic crops. Even natural substances are regulated, so farmers can’t use natural-but-harmful chemicals like arsenic or tobacco dust. To be clear: Organic crops are not pesticide-free, but they can only be exposed to approved chemicals, and only when allowed organic standards aren’t enough to manage pests, weeds, or crop diseases.

Organic Livestock

The National Organic Program’s standards for livestock apply to any animal product, whether it’s meat, dairy products, eggs, or even wool.

Organic animals have been raised organic for their entire lives. They’re raised on land that has to be certified organic according to the USDA’s crop standards, and treated according to the USDA’s strictest animal health and welfare standards.

Organic dairy cows eat organic for at least a year. They don’t have to be grass-fed, necessarily, but their feed is organic—no junk food for these dairy cows.

Organic livestock eat 100% organic. If a farmer wants to market beef cattle as organic, he can’t feed them organic alfalfa one week and then switch off to non-organic feed the next week. Organic animals are allowed to receive vitamin and mineral supplements, too. Certified organic chickens, for example, eat organic, vegetarian food free of pesticides, animal byproducts, and antibiotics (although it’s worth mentioning that chickens are omnivores, since they like bugs and worms).

Organic beef cattle are raised without hormones. Hormones are banned in pigs and chickens anyway, so organic pork and chicken is hormone-free regardless. Organic animals aren’t allowed to be given antibiotics, either. If an organic chicken or pig gets sick, then the farmer must take care of it. But if the farmer gives the animal an antibiotic prohibited by the organic program, it disqualifies that animal from being marketed as organic. (Preventative medicine like vaccines are allowed, though.)

Organic grazing animals spend grazing season in the pasture. So-called “ruminants”—namely cows, sheep, and goats—must be out to pasture for the entire grazing season, which is at least 120 days, but often longer, depending on where the animal lives. Organic ruminants must also get at least 30 percent of their food from a pasture. In other words, organic beef is at least partially grass-fed, but not necessarily 100% grass-fed.

Organic animals get to live outside. If an animal is raised organic, they must have year-round access to the outdoors—and that includes access to clean, dry bedding, shade, fresh water and air, shelter, “space for exercise,” and sunlight. Organic chickens, for example, are cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised by definition, although farmers are allowed to cut their beaks and induce molting, according to the Humane Society. Farmers can only confine organic-raised animals if it’s a matter of the animals’ health (quarantining sick animals, for example) or safety (bad weather). They also can’t be subjected to genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge, and must be raised in a way with minimal impact on the environment.

Foods With Organic Ingredients

Whether you’re buying cereal, protein bars, or ice cream, processed organic foods that contain multiple ingredients are labeled with four different labels to help people know exactly how much of the ingredients are certified as organic. The three highest standards are all overseen by certifying agents from the USDA.

“100 Percent Organic”: Every single ingredient in the food, including ingredients added to help process it, is certified organic by the USDA—end of discussion. This is the highest standard for organic foods.

“Organic”: The product is made with no less than 95% certified organic ingredients. The other 5% can only come from the USDA’s list of allowed non-agricultural ingredients (like baking soda) or approved non-organic replacements, and even then, only if the organic ingredient isn’t commercially available.

“Made With” Organic: The product is made with no less than 70% certified organic ingredients, besides salt and water. The other 30% can only come from the USDA’s list of allowed non-agricultural ingredients.

If a food doesn’t have enough organic ingredients to meet those standards, it can list the specific certified organic ingredients in the ingredients list—“contains organic apples,” for example—but the food itself can’t be labeled as organic.

The Bottom Line

Whether you’re buying produce, meat, milk, or eggs, it’s a good rule of thumb to look for the USDA Certified Organic label. While some third-party certifications apply more stringent standards for animal welfare—the Humane Heartland, Food Alliance, Certified Humane, and Animal Welfare Approved are all good examples—Certified Organic is the most comprehensive government-backed certification governing production standards and animal welfare on the market.

*Erin Alexander contributed reporting to this story. 

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