The evolution of organic labeling standards

The Evolution of Organic Labeling Standards

There are few terms in the English language that are quite as variable and complex as "organic." Scientifically speaking, all it refers to is any piece of matter that contains carbon in some form or fashion. (Water in its purest form, by this standard, is inorganic.) Merriam-Webster, meanwhile, defines the word primarily as "of, relating to or derived from living organisms," but also makes note of the connotation that has become most commonly cited within the context of the English-speaking social lexicon: its association with food and drink made "without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics or pesticides." 

"Governments all over the world have their own standards regarding what can and cannot be labeled as organic."

The latter definition of the term has the most relevance from a regulatory standpoint. Governments all over the world have different standards regarding what can and cannot be labeled as "organic," with the U.S. Department of Agriculture handling this duty for the American market. Food and drink companies wishing to use organic origin as a marketing tool must meet such stipulations before they can print packaging that bears such a claim using their label printers

Companies in the food and drink business looking to bring health-conscious Americans into their fold with organic products must familiarize themselves with the USDA regulations – as well as those in other countries if they plan on doing significant business overseas. Additionally, looking into the various certifications offered by nonprofit environmental advocacy and sustainability organizations may also be worthwhile, as some consumers value these marks just as much as those issued by the government. 

A Brief Overview of Worldwide Organic Certification Standards

Under the aegis of the National Organic Program, the USDA began managing organic regulations in 1990 with the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act. The terms of this law dictate that broad public input and the expertise of the National Organic Standards Board – a 15-person group comprising private citizens with considerable knowledge of agriculture – are responsible for helping the USDA devise the stipulations of organic foods.

Per the department's website, to receive and maintain organic certification, farms "must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity and using only approved substances."

  • As one might expect, anything produced through the techniques of genetic engineering cannot be a part of organic agriculture or livestock production, nor can any synthetic ingredient or non-organic, non-agricultural ingredient.
  • Certain exceptions can be made for items like enzymes or citric acid, which are synthetically compounded but not man-made at their core.
  • The use of any poisonous natural substance like strychnine is, conversely, prohibited. 
  • It's permissible to receive USDA certification for being partially organic. Products made with 95 percent organic content can be labeled "organic" – just not "100 percent organic" – while those 70 percent organic content or more can accurately claim "Made with organic ingredients." Anything below 70 percent organic must specify that this is so if the word "organic" is used in the packaging.

In the European Union, regulations created and enforced by the Agricultural and Rural Development branch of the European Commission are more strict. To bear the Organic Farming seal, companies must ensure 95 percent of the agricultural ingredients in any given product are organic. Farmers, meanwhile, must not use genetic modifications, processors or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on plants produced for consumption or fed to livestock animals. 

Other nations with dedicated organic regulations include Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada and Mexico. The land down under and its neighbor to the east contain 38 percent of the globe's organic farmland on their own, according to Nomad Capitalist.

"Ingredients like corn and soy, while ostensibly 'natural,' can often be cultivated with inorganic fertilizers or pesticides."

Independent Groups Have Tougher Labeling Systems

A variety of environmental advocacy organizations are not convinced that the USDA and its worldwide counterparts have devised requirements that are thorough enough to meet what these groups consider to be an appropriate threshold for sustainability. As such, some of them have come up with seals of their own. 

The Non-GMO Project is one of the best-known groups offering independent certification of this kind. As its name implies, the nonprofit organization focuses on reviewing natural foods and products and ascertaining definitively that their ingredients, across the board, are organic and free of genetic alteration in any context. For example, ingredients like corn and soy, while ostensibly "natural," are produced at such a high volume in America that the likelihood of these crops having been cultivated through inorganic means is still high. Thus, the organization issues the "Non-GMO Project Verified" label to products meeting its stringent standards.

Organic Crop Improvement Association International, through its use of random inspections and meticulous records, serves as an even stricter organic-practices watchdog. While operating independent of governments, it does bear the accreditation of several, including the U.S. Any OCIA-certified organic farm must reapply each year to maintain this seal.

These are just two of the most renowned independent organic labeling groups – there are dozens around the world. Also, according to the Sierra Club, nonprofit farm funding organization the Rodale Institute recently partnered with Dr. Bronner's and Patagonia to create a new label called the Regenerative Organic Certification. Products that receive it will not only contain organic ingredients in their entirety but also be cultivated on farms devoted to "regenerative farming systems" – practices that protect the integrity of the soil and all living things on the farm. The label won't be formally issued until at least 2019, however, so businesses won't be able to add it to their packaging with their label applicators and dispensers just yet. 

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