USDA Organics Standards and Regulations

In the United States, the labeling of food products as “organic” is a relatively new and rather complex process. With the advent of such labeling, came an unprecedented increase in the volume of sales and consumption of organic foods – especially since 1998, when sales began to increase an annual twenty percent.[1] The development and standardization of regulations concerning the labeling of food products as organic have been issues in Congress since 1990 with the adoption of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). It is through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and USDA accredited certifying agents that these standards are enforced. It was not, however, until October 21, 2002 that the current standards and regulations for organic labeling were implemented by the USDA and made a national agenda.[2]

Even with this standardization, it remains difficult for the uninformed consumer to decipher the differences between different organic and non-organic labels. Therefore, it is important to discuss the regulations and standards for food products that are labeled organic, as well as the main actors in the labeling process. The regulations and standards can be broken down into three subgroups: production and handling standards; labeling standards; and accreditation and certification standards. A brief overview of the active parties in the organic labeling process will be followed by an analysis of the aforementioned standards.

Main Actors

The United States Department of Agriculture, formed in 1862 by President Lincoln, is at the forefront of nutrition, conservation, agricultural protection and other related issues. Of the seven USDA mission areas, organic regulations and standards are actively handled by the Marketing and Regulatory Programs (MRP) section through which the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) are run. The National Organic Program (NOP), a division within the USDA and more specifically the AMS works with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to develop organic labeling standards. The NOSB is a fifteen member panel representing a diverse group including, “farmer and grower; handler and processor; retailer; consumer and public interest; environmentalist; scientist; and certifying agent.”[3] While it is these organizing bodies that develop the standards for organic labeling and regulate the market for organic food products, it is ultimately the growing consciousness of consumers that has catalyzed the growth in organic sales.

Production and Handling Standards

When a food product is a candidate to be labeled organic, several factors are taken into consideration and strict national standards are enforced. These standards are applied to the “methods, practices, and substances used in producing and handling crops, livestock, and processed agricultural products.”[4] For crop production, the methods and practices prohibited include the use of sewage sludge, genetic engineering, most conventional pesticides, and ionizing radiation, among others. The substances that are permitted and prohibited are listed on the National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, this list includes fertilizers and other substances to sustain crops. Fertilizers are important to crops because they add the nutrients back into the soil that were lost during harvesting – fertilizers can be organic or inorganic. Organic fertilizers are made up of the partially decomposed waste products of animals and plants and must be further decomposed before it can be used on crops.

Due to this waiting period, most farmers use inorganic fertilizers made of nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium or potassium (all produced in an industrial process).[5] If prohibited substances have been used on the crop land, at least three years must pass before organic crops can be grown on that soil. It is through the use of organic fertilizers, tillage and cultivation practices, and crop rotation that soil fertility for organically labeled products is assured.[6]

Livestock standards apply not only to the meat taken from animals, but also to the products derived from these animals, such as milk, eggs, butter, and other animal products. Livestock standards are a fairly complex set of rules that include the time periods throughout which the producers must feed the livestock 100 percent organic feed products. Organically raised animals must be 100 percent hormone and antibiotic free, however, it is the responsibility of producers to provide adequate health care when animal get sick. Treated animals may not be used organically. Another requirement for organic livestock is the exposure and access to the outdoors rather than confinement.[7] The handling standards for organic products are very simple – commingling of organic and non-organic products is strictly prohibited.[8]

Labeling Standards

Labeling standards have led to the formation of four labeling categories for organic products. The first category is that of one hundred percent organic products; it is only these products that can be labeled “100% Organic.” The second category of organic labeling is that of products containing at least ninety-five percent organic ingredients; these products are most commonly labeled “organic.” These two categories are the only ones that are permitted to display the USDA Organic Seal (*see attached sheet for a picture of this seal).[9] The third category of “organicness” includes those products that are made with at least seventy percent organic ingredients; these products can claim to be “made with organic ingredients.” The final labeling category is comprised of the products made with less than seventy percent organic ingredients; these products may only use the term organic to specifically list the organic

ingredients on the back or side of the label.[10] The National Organic Program enforces these standards and imposes a ten thousand dollar fine on blatant violations of these standards. Due to the incredibly large volume of products and the strict standards that need to be followed for organic labeling, the USDA accredits producers and handlers of organic products.

Accreditation and Certification Standards

In order for a handler or producer of organic products to be accredited by the USDA, it must go through an application process in which they must prove that they abide by all of the aforementioned standards for production and handling of organic products. The applicants that pass the application process are then able to become certifying agents. These accredited certifying agents are located all across the nation and even internationally, including: New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Spain, Canada, Israel, and Denmark.[11] Producers and handlers that only sell less than five thousand dollars of organic products annually do not have to be certified in order to display one of the categories of labels, however, the may never use the USDA Organic Seal. While all of these standards are of great importance, the “effectiveness” of this organic labeling system must be analyzed.

“Effectiveness” of the Organic Labeling Program

There are several standards by which I will measure the “effectiveness” of the organic labeling program in the United States, including: the quantity of labeling standards, the quantity of organic food product sales, and the level of consumer consciousness through Organic organizations. While it may seem like a false measurement of effectiveness, it is my belief that the increasing quantity of organic labeling standards is an important tool by which to measure the quality of the program. The more standards that are developed means that more standards will ultimately be enforced, thus increasing the quality of the labeling process. Consumers today have unprecedented levels of consciousness on organic food products due to the increasing number of “organic” grocery stores, markets, and restaurants. Also contributing to this consciousness is the formation of organic organizations such as the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, sales of organic food products has been increasing by a steady twenty percent each year since 1998 – a fact that by itself is an adequate attestation to the success of the organic labeling program. While the importance of recognizing the mounting popularity and trendiness of the organic lifestyle, it is also important to mention that the majority of consumers chose to not make the consumption of organic foods a part of their fast-paced lives. I, however, remain optimistic and believe that any change in the direction of healthier lifestyles, effecting both humans and the earth, is a positive change. It is through the quantity of labeling standards, the quantity of organic food product sales, and the level of consumer consciousness that the successes of the organic labeling program in the United States can be noticed and applauded.


Belk, Colleen and Virginia Borden. 2004. Biology Science for Life. Pearson Education, INC: New Jersey. pp 408-409.

“Background Information”. October 2002. The National Organic Program.

Jeantheau, Mark. “You Don’t Have to be Crazy to Eat Food That’s Certifiable”. 20 July 2004. Grinning Planet.

“Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts”. April 2002. The National Organic Program.

“Organic Production and Handling Standards”. October 2002. The National Organic Program.

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