By Lauren Wilson
Food labels have good intentions: They mean to simplify your choices by signifying how something was made, what it contains, who profits, and so on. Seems straightforward, but every time I get groceries, it seems like there’s a new stamp for me to consider. A Health-Ade Kombucha alone touts three logos—USDA organic, certified vegan, and non-GMO verified—while insisting that it’s also raw, natural, gluten-free, and kosher. More complication than clarification, no?
The proliferation of labels in recent years is mostly a good thing. It means that we consumers are asking more questions about what we’re eating and drinking. What do terms like “all natural,” “cage free,” and “no added hormones” actually mean, though, and how—if at all—is that meaning enforced?
Queue this Bushwick Food Coop blog series. Over the next few weeks, I’ll decipher the labels stocking the store’s shelves. My goal is to keep these short and skimmable while linking to additional reading. Have a specific question? Curious about a particular label? Have a bone to pick? Know any good pie crust recipes? Leave a comment or tweet to me at @ariellauren.
First things first: the USDA Organic logo.
Credit: Courtesy of USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.
Everyone and their grandma seems to have heard of organic food, but what does it actually mean? In plain terms, when you see something marketed as “organic” in the U.S., this label “verifies that [a] farm or handling facility located anywhere in the world complies with the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) organic regulations and allows you to sell, label, and represent your products as organic.” A farm or operation must meet the nitty-gritty federal criteria to even use the word “organic” to describe their product—it’s illegal (and comes with a hefty fine) otherwise.
A wide spectrum of products are eligible for this certification, and in legal terms, they fall into four categories: produce, livestock, processed foods, and wild crops. I’ll hone in on produce in this first article (stay tuned for livestock), but the latter two won’t get their own posts since processed foods are basically the sum of their organic produce and/or meat parts and wild crops come from a growing source that isn’t cultivated.
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) administers these regulations with substantial input from its citizen advisory board and the public. An accredited certifying agent then enforces these rules on the ground. Technically speaking, the farms and facilities they approve follow these stipulations:
- They have operated for at least three years without the use of any prohibited substances.
- They have a sufficient buffer zone (pg. 15) between any non-organic farms or neighbors. The law doesn’t specify the size or manner of creating a buffer zone, leaving it up to individual certifying agencies to create specific rules.
- They maintain or build soil, organic matter, and health while also guarding against erosion.
- They practice sound fertility management through cover crops, compost, manure, and utilization of crop rotations.
- They prevent soil or groundwater leaching and pollution from fertility treatments and amendments.
- If using raw manure, they apply it 120 days prior to the harvest of crops that touch the ground and 90 days prior to crops that don’t.
- If their compost contains manure, it’s fully composted according to NOP rules (pg. 20).
- Farmers use organic seed (pg. 25) when available, and they must document that they looked through multiple sources for organic seeds. Farmers must use organic seeds for edible sprouts.
- Farmers cannot use treated seed (pg. 26), even if that means using a different variety.
- They must use organic transplants (unless a temporary variance is granted).
- Non-organic planting stock (pg. 27) can only be used if organic is unavailable and as long as it has not been treated with prohibited substances.
- Farmers can only sale organic planting stock after a year of organic management.
- They prevent disease and pests through diversity, cultural practices, and manual control.
- They practice mechanical weed control through tillage, flame weeding, mulch and/or grazing (pg. 32-35).
- They can use approved substances (pg. 37-41) only when preventative measures don’t work.
- They do not use treated lumber in a growing medium.
- Equipment used in both organic and non-organic systems must be cleaned between use.
- Farmers do not use GMO (pg. 26) seeds or products.
- They do not practice irradiation or use sewer sludge.
- It almost goes without saying, but no use of prohibited substances.
This clearly covers a lot of environmental concerns, but it should be noted that USDA organic certification does not include rules for farmworker rights, an individual farm’s size, or its ownership and/or whether something is “local.” The law only defines farming techniques.
It’s also important to note that not all farms that follow these practices have USDA certification. Getting the label can simply be too expensive and/or bureaucratic for smaller operations, so if you have a particular concern about a product from a non-certified farm and can ask the farmer, do it.
Larger producers can often afford this expense, which is why you’ll commonly see this label on processed foods. Many of these products—think Kashi, Annie’s Homegrown, and Honest Tea—are owned by the same multinational corporations—like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and General Mills—that own major processed food brands. Check this out this chart for a more detailed breakdown.
Want to learn more about organic certification? Here’s some recommended reading:
- “Organic vs. ‘Organic’: How Much Does Certification Matter?” —Civil Eats
Civil Eats dishes the science on organic produce toxicity. Spoiler alert: Even certified organic produce is not pesticide-free in most cases. Exposure is entirely relative though, and Civil Eats still defends an environmental argument for why we should “go organic.”
- “New Science Confirms: If You Eat Organic You’ll be Exposed to Fewer Pesticides” —Civil Eats
“…[It] might seem obvious that eating organic food is a good way to avoid eating pesticides, there hasn’t been a great deal of science to prove it—until now.”
- Organic, Inc. by Sam Fromartz
According to the author, “It’s a book about the growth of a cultural movement, organic food. It began with an ideal vision of farming, food, and health, then grew into a multibillion-dollar industry. I was curious about how it began and why it succeeded, and why so many of the pioneers have had trouble with that growth. You could say the book is about what happens when ideals meet the marketplace.”