You buy organic. And you know there are some regulations and certification. You know it that being certified organic means there are certain materials you cannot use.  And that it’s healthier for people and the planet. That’s strong knowledge right there and we thank you for buying organic and being dialed in.

You probably also know there’s more to it than that, even if you don’t know the deets. And you’d be right. Sure, you could dive into the 500+ pages of the USDA Organic Standards (a click away if you’re interested). But that’s what we’re here for (that and growing some fresh and delicious organic produce ?. Stay tuned to this space if you’re interested in getting a deeper understanding without wading through the regulations. This is the first in a series of posts where we will lay out layman’s explanations of what it really means to be certified organic.

Let’s start with the foundation. The spirit and principles of the organic regulations can be found in this definition from the USDA:

Organic is a labeling term for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity in accordance with the USDA organic regulations. This means that organic operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

It’s so much more than what cannot be used. Becoming certified organic requires farmers to create healthy environmental outcomes in addition to healthy food. How is that verified? Every farm or handler or processor has to develop and maintain an Organic System Plan (OSP) that demonstrates how they do what they do. That plan is reviewed and audited and verified every year by an organic certification agency (accredited by the USDA).

Now let’s talk about the USDA Organic Seal and the word “organic.” It’s all regulated. When you see the seal, that means the product is 95% to 100% organic ingredients. “Wait, hold the phone. You mean I might be cheated with 5% non-organic ingredients?” Slow yer roll. Just. One. Minute.

That 5% is allowed because there are some ingredients that either cannot be certified organic (such as salt/baking soda) or are not available in commercial quantities organically (in which case they must not be produced with any excluded methods, such as genetic engineering or irradiation). And it is only the ingredients that cannot be sourced organically that may make up that 5%. So, for example, we couldn’t be running low on organic arugula and decide to fill in with conventional arugula as long as it was only 5% of the salad.

If you’re wondering why salt cannot be certified organic, it’s because salt is a mineral, not an agricultural product and is mined not farmed.

Even if a product is less than 95% organic and may not display the USDA Organic seal, use of the word “organic” is still governed by the regulations.

  • If a product is made up of at least 70% organic ingredients, the front of the package can say: “Made with organic ingredients” or “Made with organic corn.”
  • If a product is less than 70% organic ingredients, then the word “organic” cannot appear on the front panel, but may appear in the list of ingredients.