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Understanding the
Organic Label

The Legislation
The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) first went into place as part of the 1990 Farm Bill.  Previous to the 1990 legislation, organic foods had been labeled and overseen by individual states, meaning that organic l
abeling was generally inconsistent, whether from state to state or between individual certifiers.  In creating a national face for organic labeling, the OFPA marked a significant turning point in the production and market for organic food in the U.S., greatly broadening the system and paving the way for far more and far larger producers.  This dynamic is a significant part of the controversey, as organic advocates, producers, and consumers continually debate whether the market is served by its broadening or, alternatively, weakened by a more flexible or permissive set of national standards. 

As part of the legislation, the OFPA created the National Organics Program, a governing body that operates within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to oversee national organic standards and coordinate private certifying agencies.  The power of the NOP in the labeling process is where we begin to see significant debate over the integrity of the organics label.   As the NOP has significant authority in determining what ultimately constitutes “organic,” it is only fair that their authority should be brought into question.

Though the OFPA is a large piece of national legislature, the building of the Act was in large part a collaborative effort.  After its passage in 1990, the Act was opened to public review, allowing a time period for public commentary -- receiving approximately 275,000 comments in total.  It is clear that from the beginning that organic food and its labeling had a variety of vocal, interested parties, whether consumer or industry or anywhere in between.  At the time of the Act’s implementation in 2002, the open process bode well for the program overall, meaning that a plurality of interests and experience were represented in the federal standards to be made into law.  What we will see as we more closely examine how the legislation is used today is that the smaller voices, particularly those of the consumer, have been slowly lost in the conversation over organic food production and labeling.   

The Labeling Process
Although many product labels offer voluntary information, such as “natural” or “free-range,” the USDA Organic label carries a great deal more weight.  As such, the National Organics Program has in place specific regulations that determine whether a product will gain organic status.  Although the USDA determines the qualifications for organic production (limited use of herbicides and pesticides, soil preservation techniques, no antibiotic or hormone use, etc.), the labeling is certified through private rather than public agencies.  Though there are a core and defined set of qualifications for organic produce and ingredients, the variety of private organic certifiers often makes for an inconsistent mosaic of standards across the country.  In an increasingly profit-driven market for organic foods, organic certifiers with simpler standards are often favored over those with stricter adherence (or interpretation) of regulations.  Overall, there are more than 30 private domestic certifiers in the U.S., many of which, like Quality Assurance International or Oregon Tilth Organic Certifiers, are large, well-known agencies.

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The Labels
When we talk about the organic label in the U.S., we’re mainly talking about three different levels.  It’s in these levels where the National List becomes important.  Typically, “organic” refers to products that are 95% organic.  The remaining 5% of ingredients come from “The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.”  Mainly, the National List designates allowable synthetic and non-organic ingredients as well as prohibited non-synthetic ingredients.

The “100% organic” label means the product contains no non-organic (and no synthetic) ingredients, regardless of the stipulations of the National List.  Typically, consumers assume every organic label to mean that the product is entirely organic, rather than the 100% organic label.

“Made with organic” signifies that a product has been made with 70% organic ingredients and 30% nonorganic, all in accordance with the allowed ingredients from the National List.  Though the “made with organic” ingredients undergo the same certification process, the packaging is not allowed to use the USDA seal.  

The graphic shown above and to the right outlines the hierarchy of the USDA label and how it can be used.  The percentages are in reference to the product’s overall weight.  For example, in the case of the organic label, 5% or less of the product’s weight is non-organic or synthetic (Consumer Reports, 2006). 

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USDA Black and White Label

QAI Label

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