The clean label movement has placed a spotlight on organic labeling. This new focus has highlighted confusion shared by both consumers and manufacturers about the use of different organic labels on food products.
As the public continues to scrutinize their food labels, a clear understanding of this term’s application is crucial.
Working toward a National Standard
The organic discussion is not a new one. Before the USDA set unified standards, states individually worked to tackle defining, regulating, and certifying organic products. Between 1973 and 1990, twenty- two states had established their own organic production procedure, with varying degrees of oversight and little continuity between the different organic labels.
This piece meal approach to stewarding organic food production lead to confusion and vast misrepresentation. Without a system of mandatory standards that could be enforced, consumers were vulnerable to misleading labeling and manufacturers with the best of intentions felt lost in a sea of conflicting definitions.
It became obvious such an approach was not sustainable, and in 1980 the food industry pushed congress to address this issue. Over the next 10 years, congress crafted the Organic Food Protection Act (OFPA), which finally designated one governing body-the USDA, to oversee and monitor the growing organics industry.
The USDA was now responsible for the codification of a national standard and from this the National Organic Program was born (NOP). In December, 2000 the USDA issued its final rule which clearly laid out organic definitions, the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, standard operating procedures, along with fines and penalties.
Establishing the different Organic Labels
The organic label tiers established by the USDA are meant to provide clarity, understanding, and guidelines for both consumers and manufacturers. The presence of organic labels on food products, is not meant to indicate greater nutritional or health value.
Presently there are 4 categories or tiers of organic labeling- 100% Organic, Organic, “Made with Organic” and Specific Ingredient Listing:
This title is applied to products in which 100% of its ingredients are certified organic. This is most easily found in raw and unprocessed farm products as well as rolled oats and grain flours.
- Principal Display panel: Can include USDA Organic Seal and/or 100% organic wording
- Information Panel: Mandatory to identify all organic ingredients
At least 95% of the ingredients used must be organic. It is allowable that up to 5% of the ingredients listed be nonorganic agricultural products, so long as an organic alternative is not commercially available or the ingredient is classified as nonagricultural and can be found on the national list of permitted substances.
- Principal Display: Can include USDA Organic Seal and/or Organic Claim
- Information Panel: Mandatory to identify which ingredients are organic
“Made with Organic_____”
In order to make this label claim, 70% of the ingredients used must be organic. Up to 30% of the remaining ingredients can be composed of acceptable non organic products. Keep in mind vague statements such “made with organic ingredients” are prohibited. When using this label, companies must specify the exact certified organic ingredients. It should be noted despite being prohibited from using the USDA organic seal, manufacturers must still indicate the certifying body used for the organic contents in their final product.
- Principal Display: Manufacturer can state “made with organic” and insert no more than 3 ingredients or ingredient categories. Packaging cannot use USDA organic seal or make any claim that would characterize the finished product as organic
- Information Panel: Mandatory to identify organic ingredients
Specific Ingredient Listing
This designation is meant for finished products containing less than 70% organic ingredients. All organic products used may be listed in the ingredient statement-e.g. “Ingredients: water, sugar, organic pineapple juice”
- Principal Display: Producer must not use the USDA Organic Seal or apply the word organic anywhere on the front packaging
- Information Panel: Can list only certified organic ingredients as organic in the ingredient list as well as the percentage of organic contents. All other ingredients are not required to adhere to USDA organic regulations
Keep in mind the following applies to all organic ingredient designations- water and salt do not require organic certification because they are considered natural. It is also important to note, at no point in the production process can GMOs be introduced into the system. If this were to occur, the ingredient could no longer be considered organic.
Looking To the Future
No matter the organic label tier, manufacturers must be diligent when vetting their sources for organic raw materials. This requires extensive labor investment but the future return is well worth the expense. In 2015 Organic Food sales saw an 11% increase which equated to $4.2 billion, coming to a grand total of $39.7 billion.
These numbers will only continue to grow and food producers have a captive audience at hand. Understanding the different organic labels is key for food manufactures to find their niche in the ever-expanding organic market.