What do the new organic labeling standards mean for you?
When it comes to organic foods, two things are indisputable:
- They are one of the fastest growing food markets, with sales of $11 billion expected by the end of the year.
- Organic foods have often been labeled incorrectly, and many groups were certifying their authenticity.
No longer. In October, the USDA’s long-awaited and much-debated organic food labels began appearing.
Not everyone in the organic market is enthusiastic about the new labels. Many organic wine producers don’t want to “certify” their vintages, for example. Some want to compete on the global stage, and don’t want their wines to be forced into the organic niche. Others fear that the mediocre quality of early organic wines will affect their reputation.
But for the everyday shopper, uniform labeling standards will be helpful. The new USDA organic standards ensure that certified vegetable and grains have been grown without fungicides, pesticides, insecticides, chemical fertilizers or herbicides. And, it guarantees that foods have not been irradiated, genetically modified, or treated with human or industrial waste.
Certified organic meat and poultry is raised on organic grain, without hormones or antibiotics, and the animals spend time outdoors.
The organic label does not mean that the food is safer or healthier. The nutrient content of organic foods is virtually the same as for non-organic. Organic is simply a method of growing or production. Farmers committed to the process feel that they are protecting the environment.
When it comes to taste, organically grown fruits and vegetables may taste better. But it will be hard distinguish organic processed foods from their non-organic counterparts, which are often less expensive.
One difficult thing about the new standards is that there are four levels of organic certification.
- For single-ingredient foods like eggs, apples or meat that are produced organically, the USDA organic seal can be on the label.
- For processed foods like cereal, the product has to be 95% to 100% organic to use the seal on the front of the package.
- Foods that have at least 70% organic ingredients can have labels that say, “Made with organic ingredients.” But, the USDA seal may not be used.
- Products with less than 70% organic ingredients can’t use the USDA seal. The organic ingredients can only be identified on the ingredients listing.
Foods must be certified organic to use the USDA seal. BUT the seal is voluntary, and smaller producers may decide not to use it. And the seals won’t appear right away—most manufacturers will use up their existing labels first before applying the new ones.