What does “Certified Organic” mean?

What does the Certified Organic label really mean? :: Five Little Homesteaders

photo via Tim Psych on flickr

Have you ever wondered what it really means when something is “certified organic”?  Yeah.  Me too.

I mean, it is one of those things that we all think we are pretty sure about, but have you ever researched it?  Yeah.  Me neither.

So, I took on the task of researching and here’s what I found out.

What does “Certified Organic” really mean?

In its most simple terms, “certified organic” is a consumer protection regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome .  More specifically, when something holds the certified organic label, it means that the product has been produced and/or processed in compliance with the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) – http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOP standards. These standards went into effect in April 2001.

Further, certified organic means that with:

  • Vegetables and Fruit: no irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides or GMOS have been used
  • Livestock: they’re fed 100% organic feed, no antibiotics or growth hormones are used, they have some access to the outdoors
  • Multi-Ingredient Foods: 95% of ingredients are certified organic

The USDA works in conjunction with the National Organic Standards Board – http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nosb to develop these regulations.  This board is made up of consumers, environmentalists, farmers and scientists.  Current members are listed here – http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/ams.fetchTemplateData.do?template=TemplateM&navID=NationalOrganicProgram&leftNav=NationalOrganicProgram&page=NOSBCurrentMembers&description=Current%20NOSB%20Members .  As you notice under the “vegetables and fruit” category above, organic produce cannot use “prohibited pesticides,” which means that there are SOME pesticides that are allowed.  This board advises the USDA on which substances should be allowed and what shouldn’t.  This work results in the “ National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances – http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/ams.fetchTemplateData.do?template=TemplateJ&leftNav=NationalOrganicProgram&page=NOPNationalList&description=National%2520List%2520of%2520Allowed%2520and%2520Prohibited%2520Substances .”

What does certified organic mean?

photo via andy roberts on flickr

How is the “Certified Organic” label obtained?

Obtaining the certified organic label can be costly and time consuming.  Many small farms do not spend the time to obtain the official label and simply say that their produce is “naturally” grown or grown in an “organic” manner.  Be sure to talk to local farmers and find out how they grow their produce.  Just because it doesn’t say “certified organic,” doesn’t mean it’s not organic.

To obtain certification as organic, applicants must:

  • have operations inspected by a third-party agent
  • continue to be inspected annually
  • allow soil, water, plants and/or animal tissue to be tested
  • pay certification fees that range for hundreds to thousands of dollars

Recently I’ve seen a lot of criticism about how these regulations and standards are not strict enough.  Perhaps there is some truth to this.  However, it is also true that large scale regulations such as this are difficult to create, implement and maintain.  Considering the hurdles that must be leapt by the agency and the farmers/manufacturers, I believe this is a good start to a good system.  What are your thoughts?

What does the

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  • 3 thoughts on “What does “Certified Organic” mean?

    1. Abby Reynolds

      As a Horticulture student who’s studied Organic Certification in a number of classes and worked at a Certified Organic farm, I’ve heard a lot of interesting opinions on the certification process and it’s costs and benefits. The cost and amount of time needed for record keeping can be difficult for some farms which is why you often see farms that are not certified. But the one benefit I see with being certified is that people know that you are, without a doubt, an organic producer that has to adhere to certain guidelines. This is helpful in larger city farmers market where you don’t often know what the growing practices of certain farms are and often can’t have long conversations about growing practices with busy market stand managers, who sometimes speak English as a second language (which I’m not knocking AT ALL, it’s just fairly common in larger cities to see this and it sometimes makes it harder to communicate about growing practices) . The thing that irks me the most is when growers who are not certified but use organic practices are asked “Are you organic?” and they simply reply “Yes” and move on. (I’ve encountered this at the farmers market that my farm sells at.) This is where we start seeing confused customers because, to many, “Certified Organic” and “organic” are interchangeable to them but, like you stated, Certified Organic and growers that use organic practices are not always the same. Because they aren’t regulated, and even if they are overall using organic practices, there isn’t any way of knowing if they might use pesticides sometimes or a GMO variety here or there unless they specifically tell you. So I guess my point is that for growers who use organic practices but aren’t certified, they should specifically say “We use organic practices, but are not certified” because that way customers know that grower might take more leeway with growing practices than certified growers can. I do think there is room for this system to improve however, especially because this system can make it difficult for smaller farms with a smaller workforce or not enough time/money to become certified.

      Okay, rant over. Great article! I’m glad to see a short and simple explanation to the USDA’s Certified Organic system. Even though it’s been around for a while, it’s often difficult for the general consumer to understand what the term “certified organic” really means in a world with lots of food buzzwords floating around.

    2. Caitlin | belong with wildflowers

      This post is so excellent… thank you for creating it! I’ve been looking for an explanation of ‘certified organic’ to share with my readers + you completely hit the nail on the head

    3. Shayla

      My family has implemented the purchase USDA organic foods only rule in our home. This is a fantastic article. Thank you for sharing. I’m sure a lot of people will appreciate it and find it incredibly helpful!


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