Green Label Basics: USDA Food Organic Seal

If you live in the United States and want to buy organic food for your family, you’ll be running into the USDA Organic Food Seal (or label). With this in mind here are some basic facts about the USDA Organic Food label.

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The USDA Organic Seal may be printed in green and brown (as shown above), in black and white, or outlined in black on a transparent background. The color of the label does not affect the organic content.

USDA Organic Seal background

Back in 1990 congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) which required the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products to assure consumers that agricultural products marketed as organic meet consistent, uniform standards.

The NOP is a marketing program housed within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, and NOP, along with the OFPA have set regulations in place that require that agricultural products labeled as organic be certified by a State
or private entity that has been accredited by USDA. One variation of certification is if a company or operation makes $5,000 or less in gross income annually from organic sales – they don’t need to be certified by USDA-accredited certifying agents.

What organic actually means

  • Organic crops must be raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.
  • Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors.
  • Animal products labeled organic cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • Basically, all foods wearing the USDA Organic Seal must be grown without chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, hormones and other genetically altered baddies. Also, this label means the food can’t contain artificial colors or flavors, although some added enzymes, waxes and acids are allowed.

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How to read the USDA Organic Seal on food products

Foods in the categories “100% organic” and “organic” are allowed to display the USDA Organic Seal. To break it down, this means…

A “100% organic” food product is a single ingredient food item such as a fruit, vegetable, container of milk, slab o’ meat or cheese. For example a bunch of carrots can be 100% organic; but a product with mixed ingredients like a can of soup won’t be.

An “organic” food product is any food item with multiple ingredients. Within this multiple ingredient food item, there must be 95 to 100% worth of organic ingredients. For example bread made with 50% organic ingredients can’t carry the label, but a frozen meal with 97% organic ingredients can.

Other organic food claims

You may see food labeled as, “Made with organic ingredients.” By law that food product must contain 70% or more ingredients that are organic. You may also see a label that reads, “Contains organic ingredients” – this isn’t a great label. All it means is that a food contains less than 70% organic ingredients but there’s no minimum. A can of soup with 2% organic ingredients can say, “Contains organic ingredients.” The USDA Organic seal cannot be used anywhere on either of these two types of food packages.

If you see labels such as “sustainable, healthy, natural” or other eco-words you should know that these words don’t mean anything from a legal standpoint; which is why, if you want real organics, you should look for the USDA Organic Seal.

Coming up: some common Q&A about the USDA Organic Seal.

[images via USDA]

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Comments

  1. Kris says

    Why are some usda organic items in bright green color and some are in black/dark green? What is the difference? Thx

  2. Jennifer Chait says

    Hey Kris – the two color options are available so that product makers have a choice between green or black and white. The different colors do not affect organic policy. Those are the only choices though. You can’t, for instance, create your own label that’s bright pink or another color.

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