Monday, May 19, 2014

Food Labels: Is it Really Organic?

Deciphering food labels and marketing claims can be a challenge for the average consumer.  Companies use production and handling claims as a way to differentiate their products in the marketplace. Organic is one label that most consumers are familiar with, but understanding what “organic” really means can help consumers make informed choices.

USDA certified organic products have strict production and labeling requirements.  The U.S. organic industry is regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP), part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.  Certified organic products are produced without excluded methods such as genetic engineering or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  The organic standards are designed to allow natural substances in organic farming while prohibiting synthetic substances.

If a product meets these requirements, its label may include a statement like, “Made with organic oats and cranberries.”  A more generic statement like, “Made with organic ingredients,” is not allowed.

If an ingredient is identified in the “Made with organic ***” statement, it must be a truthful claim. This means the product can only contain organic forms of that specific ingredient.   For example, if the label states “Made with organic corn” all raw and processed corn-based ingredients—such as blue corn, corn oil, and corn starch—must be certified organic.

The USDA organic regulations provide a set list of “food groups.” All raw and processed forms of ingredients in that food group must be certified organic. For example, if a product states, “Made with organic grains,” all ingredients derived from grains—such as enriched wheat flour, corn oil, or oats—must be certified organic.  If a product contains both organic and non-organic forms of the same ingredient, they must be identified separately in the ingredient statement.

“Made with organic***” products can’t use the USDA organic seal, but must identify the USDA-accredited certifying agent. You can look for the identity of the certifier on a packaged product for verification that the product meets USDA’s organic standards.  Certifying agents are accredited by the USDA, and are responsible for ensuring that the USDA organic products meet or exceed all organic standards.

The NOP recently put out final guidance on this labeling category to ensure consistency in labeling practices throughout the organic industry.  Consumers purchase organic products expecting that they maintain their organic integrity from farm to market, and USDA is committed to meeting these expectations.  Or, as we like to say at NOP, “organic integrity from farm to table, consumers trust the organic label.”

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