6 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About “Organic”
“Organic” is a labeling term that indicates that a food or other agricultural product has been produced using approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.
But for all of the growth in the organic food sector over the past decade, there are quite a few things that people don’t know. Here are six things that I didn’t know about organic:
1) The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is strictly prohibited in organic products.
To meet USDA regulations, farmers and processors are required to prove that they do not use any GMOs and that they are actively protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances along the entire supply chain, from farm to table.
Common prevention practices include:
- Planting seeds early or late to avoid having organic and GMO crops flower at the same time (which can lead to cross-pollination).
- Establishing organically-managed buffer zones around fields.
- Implementing stringent cleaning protocols for processing equipment to prevent unintended exposure to GMOs.
2) “Organic” items are actually 95% organic.
A raw or processed agricultural product sold, labeled or represented as “organic” must contain—by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt—not less than 95% organically produced raw or processed agricultural products.
100% organic products are just that—items that must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) 100% organically produced ingredients.
3) Organic livestock can be given some synthetic substances under certain conditions.
Farmers and ranchers must accommodate the health and natural behavior of their animals year-round, including access to the outdoors (with direct sunlight), fresh air and water and clean, dry bedding. Organic livestock can also be given some synthetic substances if they are used specifically for the treatment of illness (as opposed to the prevention of illness).
Common synthetic substances allowed for use in organic livestock include:
- Disinfectants and sanitizers like alcohol, ethanol and chlorine.
- Aspirin for reducing inflammation.
- Electrolytes for diet supplementation.
With nearly all of these substances, there is a clearly defined length of time between when they can be utilized and when the animals can be slaughtered (referred to as the withdrawal period).
4) Organic certification can also be used for alcohol, textiles and cosmetics.
Wine may only be certified organic if the grapes are grown in accordance with principles of organic farming, excluding the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Note that only wine made with grapes can contain sulfites; any other fruit-based wine cannot contain sulfites and be organic.
Beer can be certified organic if it contains at least 95% organically produced ingredients. However, it must be proven that the remaining 5% ingredients are not available in organic form in the quantity/quality needed.
In textiles, if all instances of specific fibers are certified organic, the label may declare the item as organic and identify the percentage of organic fibers. Unless the finished product is certified to USDA organic regulations, product labels may not state or imply that the finished product is USDA organic or use the USDA organic seal.
Organic cosmetic products pose an interesting dilemma: currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (the organization responsible for monitoring health claims in non-food items) only has the authority to regulate cosmetics under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA)—neither of which legally define the term “organic.” But also, the USDA has not created specific organic standards for formulating and labeling personal care products that contain organic ingredients.
In a nutshell, even though personal care products may contain agricultural ingredients that are eligible for USDA organic certification, the agency says it’s not authorized to actually regulate the “production and labeling” of those items. Take any organic health product claims with a grain of salt.
Full Circle reminder: It’s important to remember that an ingredient’s source does not determine its safety.
5) There’s no such thing as “Organic” seafood.
As of 2015, there are still no official (read: legal) standards for what defines organic seafood. Sustainable fish farming that is considered organic is simply not required to meet the standards imposed by food produced on land. Buyer beware: Some seafood producers have been known to apply the “USDA Organic” seal to their products simply to command a higher price.
6) Organic food travels less.
The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) found that in 2014, the first point of sale for 80% of all U.S. organic products was less than 500 miles from the farm where it was grown.