Behind the ‘Organic’ Label

Reusable Produce Bag

Understanding what organic means and what it applies to can be confusing. What types of products does the USDA certification apply to? What does it mean when the word ‘organic’ is used on a label? If a package uses the word but doesn’t have the USDA green seal, is it organic? If you are looking for an organic product, this guide will help you understand the nuances around the word.

Let’s start by defining what it means when something is certified organic. Governing bodies around the world have created their own requirements that producers of agricultural products must meet in order to use a certified organic label. In the United States the governing body falls under the Department of Agriculture which establishes the guidelines that must be met in order to apply the USDA Organic Seal to a product. The agency’s requirements for organic cover things like pest and weed control systems, humane standards for animals, feed for animals, and use of fertilizers on farms as well as the amount of organic content in processed foods. The criteria forbids the use of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms), antibiotic treatment of animals and artificial ingredients of any kind.

Food products, textiles, cosmetics and skincare products can be certified organic. For a farm to be certified organic, they must meet the requirements of the certification. As previously mentioned, this includes growing food without the use of chemical fertilizers and using natural methods for weed and pest control. For farmers who raise animals, there are regulations that cover feed, outdoor access, and even slaughter practices. The USDA’s website offers a more in depth look at the certification standards for farms.

Processed foods are no exception. To carry the USDA certification seal a processed food must contain 100% organic ingredients and the processing facility must also be a certified organic facility. To use the words ‘made with organic ingredients’ on a label, at least 70% of the ingredients have to be certified organic. Products containing less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the organic seal or use the word ‘organic’ other than to identify which ingredients are organic on the ingredients list.

Cosmetics, skincare and personal care products can be certified organic if the ingredients are agricultural in nature. In order for the final product to use the USDA organic seal, the ingredients have to be grown on an organic farm and the manufacturing facility must also be certified. Cosmetics, skincare and personal care products can use the organic seal if they contain 100% organic ingredients or if at least 95% of the ingredients are organic. In this case, the other 5% may consist of nonagricultural products from an approved list or an ingredient that isn’t commercially available from an organic farm. If you see ‘made with organic ingredients’ on the label of a cosmetic, skincare or personal care product at least 70% of the ingredients are organic. Just like processed food products, cosmetic, skincare or personal product containing less than 70% organic ingredients, cannot use the organic seal or use the word organic on the packaging except to identify which ingredients are organic on the ingredients list.

Clothing can be certified organic by the USDA if its materials and production meet the USDA’s criteria, however it’s much more common to see labels that say ‘made with organic cotton’. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a certification for textiles and covers anything made with natural fibers from home goods, to clothing and bedding. GOTS requires 70% certified organic fibers to apply their label to products. 

There are many small farms in the U.S. who farm organically, sometimes even going beyond organic, but who can’t afford the certification fees. To understand the methods a local farm uses, I always recommend asking them directly. Shopping at a local farmer’s market is the best way to start this conversation because it gives you the opportunity to speak directly to the person growing the food.  Regardless of where you choose to shop, I hope this gives you a better understanding of what’s behind the labels you see on packaging.

Author Details

Jen Culler Liepis

Jen is the founder of Love Local.