Sunday, June 19, 2011

What Does An 'Organic' Label Mean ?

The badge of honor, the mark of excellence, a symbol you can trust. You know the one I'm talking about. You've all seen it by now. The prominently displayed USDA ORGANIC logo. What does this logo mean and who gets to use it ? Thankfully enough it's pretty straightforward and easy to understand.

In the last blog I discussed a couple of points about taking control of some single ingredients in your kitchen. These are easy to identify as "organic" because there is only one ingredient to deal with. Often these single ingredient items are certified by any one of roughly 60 certifying agents authorized by the USDA to do inspections. Examples of single item ingredients are produce, milk, cheese, meat, and eggs. These products have the USDA seal on them and carry the certifying agencies name on them as well.

For the rest of the organically labeled foods out there (with more than one ingredient) there are four simple categories of which you should know and understand.

The first category is 100% ORGANIC . If all of the ingredients in a product with the exception of water and salt can proclaim to be certified organic than the product can proudly proclaim 100% ORGANIC in a prominent position on the front of the package. Sometimes the manufacturer of the product will choose not to use the USDA ORGANIC logo and will instead label it as 100% ORGANIC,which is your assurance that this product is in fact organic. You will also find the words CERTIFIED ORGANIC BY followed by the name of the authorized certifying agency, along with its seal. An example of this found on many products here in L.A. is the C.C.O.F. seal or California Certified Organic Farmers.  Only a farmer who sells less than $5,000 a year worth of product is exempt from having to become certified.

The second category of labeling is for packaged foods which contain 95% - 99% Organic ingredients by weight, not including water or salt. These products are are allowed to label themselves as ORGANIC, or the phrase 9X% ORGANIC. In most cases you will still see the USDA organic seal, but it is optional. You will definitely see the emblem of the certifying agency and an ingredients list clearly identifying the organic items, along with the words CERTIFIED ORGANIC BY followed by the certifying agency name and seal. You will not see the claim 100% percent organic. A perfect example of this in my house is our peanut butter. 98% of the peanut butter is made from organic peanuts. But the sugar and oil that make up the other 2% are not organic. The words 98% ORGANIC is found on the label along with the certifying agency which in this case is the C.C.O.F.

The third category of labeling is for packaged foods which contain 70%-94% organic. These products can use the phrase MADE WITH ORGANIC INGREDIENTS on the package along with a list of the main organic ingredient names on the main display of the package. The percentage of organic content and the USDA-authorized certifying agent seal may be used on the main display panel that contains at least 70% organic ingredients. The USDA seal is not permitted on any of these products and doing so could result in a $10,000 fine per incident.

The fourth category of labeling is for packaged foods which contain less than 70% organic. These products have some organic ingredients, but the total organic content is less than 70 percent of the product not including water or salt. You won't find the word ORGANIC in big letters on this package. It is strictly forbidden. You wont find any sign of organic emblems from anybody on this package, either. Certifying insignias are prohibited. But you could just possibly find the words X% ORGANIC INGREDIENTS, and the specific organic ingredients will be identified in the ingredients list.

Hang on, not done yet.... we just covered organics. Organics are regulated and the definitions are clear, with assured boundaries separating the different degrees. But what about all of the other labeling claims made out there on packages found on the supermarket shelves ? Very few of them are federally regulated and their definitions can be dodgy at best.

The first that comes to mind is the "All Natural" claim. It implies that there are no preservatives , colors, artificial flavors or other synthetic additives. This claim does not tell us how anything was cultivated or raised. Of course the apple used in applesauce is "all natural", or the pig that was butchered into bacon is "all natural" there are no synthetic apples or pigs. Even apples sprayed with pesticides are identified as "all natural" simply because they are not synthetic. Another close variation of this claim is "100% Natural Ingredients.
There is also the famed "Antibiotic Free", another unapproved and unverified claim. It is also about as unclear as can be in the sense that the the USDA actually does sanction two similar claims:"no antibiotics administered" and "raised without antibiotics". There is a strong implication here that the producers did NOT use antibiotics in their animal feed. But even though the USDA is supposed to be accountable for proper use of these claims, it presently has no verification system in place. Only organic-labeled meats are truly verified to be antibiotic free.
Another one that is out there which is one of my personal favorites is "Free Range". This is a partially regulated, general claim implying that a meat or poultry product, including eggs, comes from an animal raised in the open air or that it was free to roam. The USDA regulates this claim for poultry only, not beef or eggs.

and with a little practice you will see right through many of the ridiculous claims out there. Almost all of the information above can change at a moments notice that is why it is important to check out a few websites from time to time to stay up to date. To check out the U.S. National Organic Program, and to get the latest changes in food labeling procedures, go to the Website and see for yourself.