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The world of organics is huge, spans across many product categories and is only getting larger.

Understanding the standards that organic products must meet as well as the regulations behind labeling them make shoppers like you strong.

Organic labeling can be extremely confusing, and because there are multiple ways an organic claim can be made on packaging, it’s important to understand the differences. These differences are important and the reason we’re often asked:

What do the different types of organic labeling mean?

First, let’s start by understanding the items that are eligible for organic certification when properly produced.

What products can be “Certified” Organic?

The USDA recognizes the following four categories for organic certification:

usda certified organic seal - certified organic labeling

  1. Crops: Grown to be harvested as food, livestock feed, or fiber used for nutrients.
  2. Livestock: Animals to be used for food or production of the following items: food, fiber, and feed.
  3. Processed and Multi-Ingredient Products: Products that have been handled and packaged in a specific way (for example: chopped potatoes), or combined, processed, and packaged into a final product (for example: bread or soup).
  4. Wild Crops: This includes any plant life growing from a site that has not been cultivated.

The items in these product categories are then held to the following requirements and standards. It’s important to recognize that these standards are monumentally important to the organic industry as a whole. If organic standards aren’t fulfilled, they cannot be labeled as “certified organic.”

Organic Crop Standards

The USDA requires that organic crop production follow these standards:

understanding certified organic labeling

  • The land on which organic crops grow must not have had prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years before harvest.
  • The soil is most commonly maintained through tillage, cultivation practices, crop rotations, cover crops with supplemental animal and crop waste, and specifically allowed synthetic materials.
  • Pest and weed management is controlled primarily through physical, mechanical, and biological methods. If more extensive management is required, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.
  • Organic seeds must be used if available.
  • Genetic engineering (GMOs), ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge are forbidden.

Organic Livestock Standards

The following apply to animals raised for meat, milk, eggs, and any other products sold, labeled, or classified as organic.

  • Organic animals are cared for in a way that encourages their natural behavior, which includes: Access to the outdoors, shade, clean and dry bedding, shelter, space for exercise, fresh air, clean drinking water, and sunshine.
  • Animals raised for meat must be raised within an organic management program from the last third of their gestation. Poultry has a different set of rules in which they must be managed organically no later than their second day of life.
  • Livestock must consume 100% organic feed, and may also be allowed vitamin and mineral supplements.
  • Animals raised for dairy must be under organic program management for at least one year in order for milk or any other dairy products to be labeled as organic.
  • Animals are kept healthy by preventative management as they cannot ingest most medications while on an organic program. Sick animals do not have treatment withheld. If an animal is treated with an unapproved medication, it may not be resold as organic.
  • Livestock must be out on pasture for no less than 120 days per year. These animals must receive at least 30% of their feed from pasture.
  • All organic livestock is required to have access to the outdoors year round.
  • Animals may not be given hormones or antibiotics for any reason if being raised organically.

How are organic animals kept healthy and thriving?

The majority of this is preventative since organic farmers can’t use drugs consistently to manage diseases and other issues such as parasites. One of the most common ways this is handled is through careful animal selection, since only a select few drugs (like vaccines) are allowed.

If an animal needs to be treated after preventative measures have been exhausted, pain medications and de-wormers are a couple of the allowed animal drugs. Treating animals with prohibited substances is available as a last resort. Afterward, the animal can no longer be considered ‘organic.’

Understanding the Differences Between Each Organic Label

There are many labels represented on products that claim to be organic, so here’s what you need to know to decipher these varying labels.

  • If the product claims “100% Organic”:
    All ingredients used to make or grow the product are Certified Organic. Any processing aids are required to be organic as well. Product labels must clearly list the name of the certifying agent they worked with.
    Labels you’ll see: USDA Organic seal and/or 100% Organic claim.
  • If the product claims “Organic”:
    Agricultural ingredients are certified organic unless otherwise noted on the National List, but those non-organic components cannot make up more than 5% of the finished product. Organic ingredients must be labeled with an asterisk or another mark.
    Labels you’ll see: USDA Organic seal and/or an Organic claim.
  • If the product claims “Made with Organic”:
    These products were made with at least 70% certified organic ingredients, and non-organic components must be manufactured without any of the excluded methods.
    Labels you’ll see: “Made with organic (up to 3 ingredients or ingredient categories).”
    Things you should not see: The USDA Organic Seal or the finished product being represented as “certified organic”.
  • If the product claims “Specific Organic Ingredients”:
    Products that are multi-ingredient and contain less than 70% certified organic content do not need to be certified.
    Labels you’ll see: These product types may only list certified organic ingredients as “organic” within the product ingredient list.
    Things you should not see: The USDA seal or the word “organic” on the main product packaging display.

The varying organic labels are in place to ensure you know exactly how your item was produced. Seeing a Certified Organic label lets shoppers like you know the product was grown/developed while carefully following the standards set forth by the USDA.

Never wonder what an organic label represents again!

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