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Can you help me to better understand the labeling on organic foods?

While the Organic Foods Production Act is a very strong piece of legislation that helps protect both consumers and the environment, understanding its labeling provisions is a key to making decisions about organically certified foods. Some organizations have been very critical of the labeling rules set forth in the organics program and have described this labeling process as a "loophole" in the organics law. While it is true that some companies have tried to take advantage of the labeling regulations, it is also true that many companies have followed through with the spirit of the organics law and gone beyond labeling requirements in their organic food production. Here are the basics that you need to know when reading organic labels:

The USDA's green organic logo can be placed on the front of a pre-packaged, organically produced food as long as the food contents of the package are 95% organic by net weight. For example, in a boxed breakfast cereal containing 12 ounces of cereal and displaying the green organic logo on the front of the box, 95% of the cereal ingredients, or 11.4 ounces, would have to be organic. The other half an ounce (or more precisely, 0.6 ounces) could be composed of non-organic ingredients. This non-organic 5% of the cereal could include genetically engineered foods, irradiated foods, or foods sprayed with synthetic pesticides—even though none of those components are allowed within the organics law. Even though we dislike this provision in the organics law that allows 5% of a pre-packaged product to be non-organic and still display the USDA green organic symbol, we believe it is much better for our health and the health of our planet to have a product that is 95% organic than have no legislation at all.

It's important to remember that whole, fresh, natural foods—like the kind we emphasize on our World's Healthiest Foods website—do not usually fall victim to any complicated labeling regulations. When you buy fresh organic produce—like apples, or kale, or broccoli—and when you buy organic almonds, or lentils, or brown rice, you can be confident that you are buying a 100% organic food. When there is no packaging involved and when there is only one "ingredient," the organic labeling regulations don't really come into play. Under these circumstances, what you are purchasing—a single food in its natural, unpackaged state—is 100% organic.

In the case of foods like frozen blueberries, or canned garbanzo beans, the producer of the food will often state "100% organic" on the front of the package or can. In the case of 100% organic, all aspects of certified organic production apply to all ingredients. Certified organic production and handling prohibit the use of most conventional pesticides, petroleum or sewage-sludge based fertilizers, bioengineering (e.g., genetically modified seeds), or ionizing radiation. Organic meats, chicken, and turkey come from animals that are fed organic feed, have access to the outdoors, and are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Sometimes a manufacturer wants to display the name of one key ingredient on the front of a food package. For example, the manufacturer of a tomato sauce may want to write, "Contains organic tomatoes"on the front of the can. In this case, the organics labeling rules state that the product must be 70% organic by weight in order for an organic ingredient to be promoted on the front of the package. (In this case, of course, 30% of the weight of the product could be composed of non-organic ingredients.) If a pre-packaged product does not contain at least 70% organic ingredients by weight, the manufacturer is not allowed to write anything on the front of the package about its organic content. Only the side and back of the packaging can be used to describe organic content when a pre-packaged food is less than 70% organic by weight.

Listed below is a brief summary of these organic labeling regulations:

  • Food that is 100% organic may carry the "USDA organic" logo and say "100% organic"
  • Food that is at least 95% organic may carry the organic logo
  • Food that is at least 70% organic can list the organic ingredients on the front of the package
  • If a product is less than 70% organic, the organic ingredients may be listed on the side or back of the package but cannot be listed on the front.

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