Here's the Deal with the Organic Seal

Organic food is stamped with a USDA seal—except when it isn't. Here's what you need to know.

April 28, 2011

The USDA seal is your cue that a product is organic, but it's not always there.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Whether you pick up a package of spinach stamped with the "USDA Organic" seal or an organic candy bar whose label bears the same green-and-white seal, you'll be getting the same thing: a product grown or produced without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, genetically modified seeds, irradiation, sewage sludge, and synthetic food additives like dyes and flavorings. But if you look at the package a little more closely, the spinach may have another label that says it was certified by California Certified Organic Farmers, while the candy bar has a certification label from Quality Assurance International. Other products may have one of those labels but no USDA seal at all. What exactly does all that mean? In order to understand it, you might need a little background information on organic certification and who it is that ensures your food really is as organic as promised.


How the National Organic Program Works

Although modern organic farming has been around since the 1940s, when J.I. Rodale launched Organic Farming and Gardening magazine and started what's now the Rodale Institute (the country's oldest research institution devoted to organic agriculture), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) didn't have anything to do with it until the 1990s. Prior to that, each individual state or region had a local group, such as the Northeast Organic Farmers Association or Oregon Tilth, that certified farmers as using organic methods. "One of the problems was that all these groups had varying standards," says Joe Pedretti, organic education specialist at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, "and that's a problem when you're trying to build consumer confidence in organics." So as the public became more interested in organic foods during the 1980s, these groups started petitioning Congress to create a unified national standard that would clear up all this confusion. What resulted was the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which, Pedretti says, empowered the USDA to create a set of national organic standards that all these individual state and regional groups could agree on. Over the course of about 10 years, the USDA worked with all these groups, and with the other stakeholders in the process (consumer representatives, food processors, retailers, and environmentalists), to agree on the standards that are now enforced by the USDA's National Organic Program. "Now everybody follows the exact same set of rules," Pedretti says.

Rather than disbanding all those certifying groups, however, the USDA enlisted their help as agencies that certify individual farmers and food processors according to the National Organic Program standards. Certifying agencies have to apply for accreditation, and just like farmers, they're audited and inspected every year to make sure they're certifying consistently. "Before [2002], there was really no way to know if a certifier was good, not so good, if they were actually doing a good job of enforcing, reviewing, and inspecting," Pedretti says. "Now they all have to be audited and provide evidence that they're doing their job correctly."


Who the Certifiers Are

The USDA has 94 domestic and international accredited certifying agents, and USDA requires that each agent's name appear on food packaging, in the event that a consumer has a complaint against their practices. Some certifiers are operated by state departments of agriculture, while others are privately owned. Some work internationally, and some focus on crops while others certify a larger number of processed foods. If you're interested in the full list, you can search the USDA's database here. Some of the larger agencies you might see on a package include:

CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers)
OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association)
Oregon Tilth
Indiana Certified Organic
ICS (International Certification Services)
Quality Assurance International
Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Pennsylvania Certified Organic
Northeast Organic Farmers Association

"All these groups have to meet the same federal standards," Pedretti adds, which, in case you're new to organics, are basically that:

• Foods must be grown or raised without the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, sewage sludge, and genetically modified organisms.

• Animals raised organically must have access to pasture, and farmers can’t routinely feed the livestock antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.

• Animals can't be fed grain derived from genetically modified crops or crops grown using any of the aforementioned chemicals.

• Foods cannot be irradiated to kill pathogens.

• In general, all-natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited.

If any farmer violates these rules, his certification can be revoked, and any certifying agency found to have certified a farmer who violates the rules can also have its accreditation revoked. The USDA has revoked accreditations for four certifying agencies over the past eight years.


Are They All Really "Organic"?

Questions inevitably arise as to whether all these certifiers are doing a good job at enforcing the organic standards, and whether the USDA is doing a good job of overseeing them. "That's a legitimate concern," says Mark Kastel, codirector and senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group working to maintain the integrity of organic standards. His group has filed complaints against one certifier in particular, Quality Assurance International, which he describes as overly business-friendly and guilty of bad decision making when it comes to whom and what it certifies. As one example, he points to QAI's certification two years ago of a Horizon Organic milk product as organic, despite the fact that the milk was fortified with an omega-3 additive that was never approved under National Organic Program standards. [Editor's note: The omega-3 additive used by Horizon is currently under review by the National Organic Standards Board, which is expected to make a final decision about its use later this year; in the meantime, it is being allowed in organic products under National Organic Program rules.]

But one controversy shouldn't undermine the entire certification process. "The vast majority of farmers and industry participants are doing this ethically," he says. Part of the problems his group has seen with certifiers can simply be chalked up to growing pains, he says. After all, the National Organic Program has been enforcing organic rules for less than 10 years. Another factor is simple politics: "The industry-friendly regulators under the Bush administration had laws on the books to control these problems, but didn't have the political will to control them," he says. "But we've seen a marked improvement since the start of the Obama administration," adding that the USDA has increased its enforcement of both organic standards and rules for certifiers over the past few years. Kastel adds that, even with the problems he's seen with certifiers, organic is still the gold standard for food production in the U.S. "When you get away from organic, these companies are doing whatever they want without any oversight."

Bottom line: Certified-organic food is the most reliable way to ensure your food is grown using methods that protect your health and that of the planet. So look for the familiar green-and-white "USDA Organic" seal. Or grow your own organic food—this easy to make raised bed makes it easy to start a garden:

Any food claiming to be organic that doesn't have that seal should lists a USDA-accredited certifying agency somewhere on the package (If you don't see either, call the USDA; companies face steep fines for using the term "organic" on a food product that isn't certified to National Organic Program standards). At a farmer's market, if a vendor claims to farm organically but isn't certified, ask what kind of pesticides or sprays are used.