What Does the USDA Organic Label Really Mean?

I couldn’t count how many products I buy that are tied to the word “organic”.

From bunches of lettuce, to apples, to cereal, to soymilk…even non-food items like shampoo and lotion — they’re all labeled organic. And big agribusiness knows that if something has an organic label on it, people like me will, pun intended, eat it up.

When I heard companies like Eden Organics call the USDA Organic label hooey, I nearly choked on my organic granola bar.

Why would a company completely diss the USDA Organic label? What exactly does the that label mean? Care2′s Beth Buczynski examined USDA Organic meat and the Promiseland Livestock scandal. But I wanted a deeper look into the crops of organic agriculture, the basic sources of the foods called “organic”.

According to the USDA’s standards, organic does not mean pesticide free. It means that if the farmer chooses to use pesticides, they themselves must be from organic substances. And some of these organic pesticides are just as toxic for the environment as their synthetic counterparts. The organic label also doesn’t mean additive-free, since the Organic Trade Association lobbied Congress to allow toxic additives in organic foods, even if those substances don’t need to be on the ingredients label.

So if the organic label doesn’t represent all the natural, heavenly, straight-from-earth goodness that it implies…what do we do? Do we still buy organic?

The safest way to ensure you’re getting the most natural produce possible is to buy straight from the grower — like at the farmer’s market — or by growing it yourself. But some things you probably can’t grow yourself, like processed foods. Then you’re faced with the organic debacle.

As far as I’m concerned, when I can’t get it from the farmer’s market or from my own backyard, I’ll still usually choose organic. Frankly, I still feel like it’s the best that agribusinesses has to offer me right now. But I’ll be reading labels more closely, and trying to think more critically when it comes to who these companies are that I’m supporting. Some, like Eden Organics, are taking a stand; many others have been bought up by “the man”, and are therefore much quieter. They might be adopted children of some ugly step-parents, but I still consider these companies nutritious and, like I said, before, probably the best I can get if I can’t make it myself.

Despite my adherence to organic foods (for now), I don’t think we should settle for what the USDA calls organic standards. I’ll be on the lookout for ways to lobby for stricter standards that abide by a more natural philosophy, that accuratetly portray the idillic image of “organic” crops that I dream of, and that finds a way to make nature work for the economy.

You can ask the USDA to raise standards for the organic label by signing our petition.


Todd H.
Past Member 8 years ago

There is a comment below that "it is not regulated and anyone can slap organic on their products". This is absolutely false!

A farm must go through a process to become certified organic. If someone is using the word organic and is not certified, they can be reported and fined. It is unlikely that any farm could get away with using the word organic for any length of time.

The rules may not be perfect, but still there is an enormous difference between organic produce and non-organic produce. The non-organic produce can have all sorts of synthetic chemicals used, and can also include genetically engineered plants.

The one label that is unregulated and worthless is "natural". The word "natural" means absolutely nothing. Anyone can use it for any reason.

The word "organic" means a lot, and can only be used for certified organic items.

Todd H.
Past Member 8 years ago

I am operating an organic vegatable farm. A few points about the organic rules. The USDA organic rules were just strengthened with respect to requiring animals have access to pasture. There is a process for changing the rules. Get involved if you want to change them.

For produce, the difference between organic and not organic is enormous. For instance on strawberries, there are something like 72 chemicals allowed in conventional production, and 7 of those are suspected to cause cancer. For organic production, none of those chemicals are allowed.

Organic pesticides in most cases have a short half-life. Most will break down within one day. Organic pesticides are used as a last resort only when other methods have not worked and the crop would be destroyed otherwise. There are other methods of pest control, and organic chemicals are the least attractive method, t be used only as a last resort.

If you believe that the organic rules are too lenient with respect to produce, please be more specific about what you mean.

One final point with respect to farmer's markets. I do ask the farmers what they are spraying. Often times they say they are all natural, but then when you get down to it, they are using chemicals that are NOT ALLOWED on organic farms. One guy was treating all crops with synthetic pesticides, a ridulous practice. The organic label is your assurance that organic rules were followed. Be careful when buying at a farmer's market.

Justin A.
Justin A.8 years ago

I guess its time to start growing are own food....? or at least stop depending on large companies to supply our foods ...right?

bridget k.
Bridget K8 years ago

that is so retarted. Those little bitches are trying to kill us with there chemical.

Naoko H.
Naoko H8 years ago

i like knowing what i put in my body.

Karen Marion
Karen Marion8 years ago


Rita D.
Rita D.8 years ago

Everyone who cares about their health and the health of the planet needs to sign this.

Sakura l.
Yu L8 years ago

more ppl have to know about it. its definitely worth reading

Helen Laray
Helen Laray8 years ago

Not everyone has access to farmers' markets. We need legislators with enough gumption to do what is best for the people for a change, not some lobbyists who dangle big bucks in front of them.

Astrid B.
Astrid B8 years ago

Precise labeling standards would be tremendously helpful.