Exactly how "organic" does organic food have to be?

This post was written by staff member Derek Leslie.

As one peruses the local grocery store, or spends a Saturday morning at their local farmer’s market, it quickly becomes apparent that foods labeled natural or organic have really taken off. Grocery store chains devoted to the once-niche organic food market have expanded rapidly in the past decade. Indeed, it is hard to grab a bite these days at all without hearing the buzz words associated with this bona fide food phenomenon. And while its success as a brand and a marketing tool seems clear, the word organic may not be as straightforward as you might have hoped.

In 1990 Congress enacted the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in order to provide consistent national standards for producing and marketing organically produced agricultural products. Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), 7 U.S.C.A. §6501 (West 2009). OFPA requires the Department of Agriculture to promulgate regulations to effectuate its purpose. These regulations, then, provide the legal standard for the certification of foods as “organic”. Specifically, to be sold as organic, a food must “be produced and handled without the use of synthetic substances, such as pesticides, and in accordance with an organic plan agreed to by an accredited certifying agent and the producer and handler of the product.” Harvey v. Veneman, 396 F.3d 28, 32 (1st Cir. 2005) (citing 7 U.S.C. § 6504). An organic plan refers simply to an agreed upon procedure to follow in the care of the agricultural product in order to ensure it meets the standards set forth in the OFPA and the associated regulations. Organic Production and Handling System Plan, 7. C.F.R. 205.201 (2009). This includes plans to make certain synthetic substances as well as products exposed to synthetic substances do not come into contact with the organic product. Id. This, however, is just the beginning of the process.

Surprisingly, all organic foods are not created equal. Labeling and certification are, therefore, not quite as simple as “organic” or “not organic.” Actually, it consists of a four-tier labeling system based upon the percentage of organic ingredients the food contains: products containing 100% organic ingredients may be labeled “100 percent organic,” products containing 94 to 100% organic ingredients may be labeled “organic,” products made from 70 to 94 % organic ingredients may be labeled “made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups),” and finally, foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients may identify organic ingredients used on its label as “organic.” Product Composition, 7 C.F.R. § 205.301 (2009).

Moreover, products in the first two tiers of the labeling categories may bear both a United States Department of Agriculture seal and the seal of a private certifying agent. 7 C.F.R. §§ 205.303(b)(4)-(5)(2009). Products in the third tier, those made from 70 to 94% organic ingredients, may bear the seal of a private certifying agent, and products in the final tier, those containing less than 70% organic ingredients, may not bear a USDA seal nor that of a private certifier. 7 C.F.R. § 205.304 (2009); 7 C.F.R. § 205.305(b) (2009).

This, still, is not the end of the process. OFPA requires the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a National Organic Standards Board to create a list of synthetic substances recommended as exceptions to OFPA’s general prohibition against their use in the production of organic products. Another series of guidelines within OFPA exists for these exceptions. 7 U.S.C. 6517(a) (West 2009).

With the growth of the organic food industry, these regulations are having a significant impact on the lives of average American citizens, who remain largely oblivious to their operation. If we are to become savvy organic food consumers, it is necessary to familiarize ourselves with the labels and certifications that come with the territory. Only then will we be equipped to truly know what we are eating.