Federal regulations, effective in 2002, dictate label language on all foods marketed as organic. Label regulations require that ingredients be grown on certified organic farms using organic methods. They also require that the food manufacturer or processor be certified organic in order to label products as certified organic.
For example, the process of making organic soup in a food manufacturing plant is subject to regulation, to ensure that only organic ingredients are used, that only solutions approved in the regulations are used to clean equipment, that an appropriate pest control protocol is in place and that the ingredients’ storage area does not allow for accidental mixing with non-organic products.
Products labeled as 100% organic must contain only certified organic ingredients (excluding water and salt).
Products labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining ingredients can only be nonagricultural substances approved for use on the National List or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form. Non-organic agricultural products may be used as part of the 5%, but they must be determined to not be commercially available, and they must be on the National List under Section 205.606 to be allowed.
“Made with Organic Ingredients”
Processed products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and can list up to three of the organic ingredients on the display panel of the product label.
Organic Farm Requirements in Brief
All organic foods and ingredients have to be certified as organic, meaning that they have been grown on farms that use organic practices allowed by federal regulations and that an independent third party – a certification agency – has verified the farm's organic practices.
Organic farming methods emphasize soil health, cultural and biological insect and disease control and natural fertilizers. Organic food processors cannot use synthetic food preservatives or non-organic additives, although there are several exceptions.
Organic Farming & Pesticides
Organic farmers are allowed to use pesticides that fall within the confines of the National Organic Program. These are natural substances or a synthetic substance included on the National List. They can be used in conjunction with cultural methods, such as crop rotations, to control pests. All ingredients, including the carrier or inert ingredients, must also be approved for organic use.
Organic Milk Production
Regulations allow a farmer to transition their dairy herd from conventional practices to organic practices over one year’s time. At the beginning of the transition period, all organic requirements must be met. After one year, the herd’s milk can be sold as organic.
Antibiotics can never be used on a certified organic animal. If antibiotic treatment is absolutely necessary for disease or injury treatment, which is required for humane treatment, then that animal is no longer certifiable as organic and must be removed from the herd. Once an animal has been removed from organic management for any reason, it can never be transitioned back to organic production. When health issues arise, organic dairy farmers use medicinal herbal remedies.
Organic dairy farmers must pasture their ruminant farm animals during the growing season and receive a significant amount of their forage needs from pasture. They must be fed certified organic hay, grain, and have access to certified organic pasture. No hormones can be used except for limited therapeutic applications of approved substances on the National List for which there is no organic alternative. Young calves must be fed organic milk until they are able to eat organically grown hay and grass.
Certified organic animals cannot be fed genetically modified grains, feeds or be treated with growth hormones or antibiotics. Certified organic feed mixes cannot contain any animal by-products, manures or uncertified organic additives, with the exception of some minerals and vitamins allowed for animal nutrition and listed in the federal regulations.
Organic Meat Production
There is no transition allowance for meat animals. Only the meat from animals that have been raised as certified organic from their last trimester in the womb onwards can be sold as certified organic. Regulations do not allow a dairy cow that was transitioned to organic production to ever be sold for organic meat. However, her calves, raised organically during gestation, may be sold for certified organic meat. Only poultry raised organically no later than the second day of life can be sold as certified organic.
National List of Non-Organic Food & Feed Additives and Prohibited Substances
The list of non-organic feed or food additives or food processing agents allowed for use in organic farm and food production is referred to as the “National List.” These ingredients were initially included in the list in the initial 2002 regulations with a “sunset” provision, allowing their use for 5 years while the food industry developed organic alternatives. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed many substances on the National List to be renewed for another 5 years.
There are a few natural substances that are prohibited from use (such as arsenic, lead and strychnine). These are listed on the Prohibited List in the regulations. The lists can be viewed online at the USDA’s National Organic Program website, www.ams.usda.gov/nop/NationalList/ListHome.html
The pertinent regulations can be found at subpart G, 205.600 – 205.606.
Organic Farms that are not Certified Organic
There are many farmers who use organic methods, but choose not to become certified for a variety of reasons. Ask your farmer what farm practices they use. According to leaders in the organic farming community, the concept of voluntary third party independent verification of farm practices was developed by farmer organizations years ago for two reasons. First, it was developed to help farmers themselves establish organic farming principles that could be described in writing and conveyed to customers and other farmers. Second, it was developed as a vehicle of assurance for customers unable to visit a farm or unfamiliar with farmers from whom they are purchasing farm products. The mandatory requirement for third party independent verification as a condition of marketing farm and food products as organic, which is now a component of the National Organic Program’s regulations, went into effect in 2002.
Genetically Modified Organisms and Organic Foods
Organic growers not only are prohibited from using genetically modified organisms (GMO) varieties of crops, they must also structure their farm to avoid inadvertent contamination of their organic crops by any neighboring GMO crops. Hence, any certified organic food product has been produced without the use of GMOs.
Natural Foods are not Necessarily Organic
At this point in time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture do not define or regulate use of the term “natural.”
Pesticide-Free is not Necessarily Organic
Federal regulations specify that only certified organic farmers and food processors can label and sell their products as organic. Farmers that produce crops that they sell as pesticide-free may or may not use organic methods.
New York State Organic Farming Links