We all know “USDA certified organic” products are supposed to be healthier for us, but…
- What does it mean to be labeled “USDA organic”?
- Is the USDA stamp of approval really that important?
- And how does a brand get permission to use one?
These are all great questions and hopefully, we can clear some of this up for you here. The short answer is yes, having the USDA seal really does matter. Any brand who claims to be organic but does not carry the seal should be met with skepticism. Moreover, unless you are USDA certified, there are very few exceptions to how the word “organic” can be applied to a product. This is a good thing, since for the word to stand for something tangible, there needs to be some formal entity in charge of verifying it.
Let’s begin first with the very definition of what it means to be “organic” as defined by the USDA National Organic Standards Board:
"Organic" is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.”
Basically, Organic means that:
- Organic seeds are used for growth
- Crop is grown in a way that cares for the land
- Free of toxins, pesticides, and chemicals
- Free from genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge
As owners of the first legal hemp farm in New York (JD Farms), and one of the largest organic farms in the state, there is one day a year that we stress about the most: our annual organic inspection. While we are often told by our certifying agency, NOFA, that we are among the most diligent, organized, and compliant organic farms in the region, it is still the most taxing day of our year. And trust us, despite our favorable standing, our certifier does not give us a pass, nor do we take her for granted.
What makes the day a bit easier is the months and years we spend documenting every input that goes into each individual field, and at over 80 fields, that’s a lot of documentation. You may not know this, but the requirements to get a farm organically certified are about as stringent as an audit by the IRS. Moreover, imagine having that audit every year in perpetuity for as long as you wish to remain certified. Don’t get me wrong, we are not complaining. The requirements should be that stringent. After all, that little green and white USDA organic label would not mean a thing if no one took it seriously. And if you truly want to know what’s in the food you’re eating, the presence of that seal is meant to provide comfort that someone other than the brand name on the package has ensured the produce was grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers or meat raised without antibiotics and growth hormones.
Another thing you may not know is that to even be considered eligible for certification, a farm must first prove that either their field(s) have been fallow and/or no prohibited products have been applied to the field(s) during the last three years prior to their application. This requirement helps ensure the soil is completely free of any chemical compounds that could leech into the production of any crops planted or pastures grazed. In addition to the three year fallow period, the USDA mandates organic farmers adhere to the following protocols:
- Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.
- Crop pests, weeds, and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.
- Operations must use organic seeds and other planting stock when available.
- The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited.
It is now considered illegal to label a food “organic” if the product has not been certified by a USDA accredited agency. This applies not just for the grower, but any business directly involved in the food production process. What this means is that any facility along the supply chain that handles the raw material or ingredients that go into the final product must also be certified to be in compliance with the USDA organic regulations specific to their type of operation. It wasn’t always that way though. The USDA seal only came into existence following the establishment of the National Organic Program (NOP)--the federal regulatory framework governing organic food--in 2000 after decades of lobbying by organic farmers, environmental groups, chefs and food executives. It is one of the rare cases in which the bulk of an industry actually called for the government to impose regulations rather than strip them away.
This is not to say that the establishment of national guidelines closed all loopholes that prevent bad guys from getting an organic certification fraudulently. Fact is, no matter the industry, there will always be bad guys who manage to find and exploit weaknesses inherent to any system of governance. One such weakness is the result of uneven enforcement due to the sheer number of agencies accredited to certify farms and facilities not just around the country, but around the world. There are nearly 80 USDA-accredited certifying agents authorized to certify operations to the USDA organic standards. Of these, 47 are based in the US and 31 are based in foreign countries. And although imported organic products are required to meet the same standards as domestic ones, there has been growing concern that enforcement efforts overseas have fallen short. Moreover, the label “organic” doesn’t necessarily guarantee the product is healthier or more nutritious. It says nothing about whether it was produced or raised using good environmental practices or in the case of meat, humane conditions that go beyond using organic inputs.
So where does this leave all of us who care about the integrity of the organic supply chain? We take the approach of “trust but verify.” The USDA label is still the best indicator we have to verify the contents of our organic food has not been compromised. That said, it also helps to ensure the organic brands you buy are as transparent as possible in how they source their ingredients, how they raise their animals, and what nutritional advantages the product has over conventional brands. This requires a little extra work by the consumer, but any brand that cares about your health and wellbeing, should be proactive about the transparency of their supply chain and standards they use for sourcing. With the onset of COVID-19, it is becoming more important than ever that we take an active interest in the sanctity of our food supply. As consumers, we vote with our dollars, so be sure that vote counts by spending it wisely on brands that care deeply about what you put in your pantry.