Nutrition Column – New Standards Issued for Organic Foods

Trying to decide between the organic carrots at $1.19 per pound and the non-labeled ones at 99 cents per pound? While the price difference is a consideration, you can at least be assured that the organic carrots actually are produced using organic growing methods. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented a new set of national standards that all foods must meet to be labeled organic.

Why now? Although organic food production has been practiced in the United States since the late 1940s, it was not until the organic industry underwent a tremendous period of growth during the past two decades that a need for well-defined standards was realized. Since 1980, the organic food industry has grown from producing $78 million a year in sales to well over $6 billion in sales today.

Created as a result of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, the new guidelines are intended to assure consumers that organic foods purchased in the United States are produced, processed and certified based on consistent national standards. However, it is important to note that by issuing the new organic food label standards, the USDA is not making any claims that organically produced food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. What is new is that the label provides a guarantee that the product was produced and processed according to organic production guidelines. The new labeling requirements apply to all raw, fresh and processed foods that contain organic ingredients.

What is an organic food? According to the USDA, organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meats, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that have not been given any antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without the use of most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers, bioengineering or irradiation.

Under the recently adopted guidelines, food products designated "100 percent organic" must contain only organic ingredients. Products labeled "organic" must be at least 95 percent organic by weight. Additionally, any remaining ingredients must consist of approved nonagricultural substances or non-organically produced agricultural products not commercially available in organic form. Both "100 percent organic" and "organic" foods may display the USDA Organic seal on their package label. For processed products consisting of at least 70 percent organic ingredients, the label is allowed to read, "made with organic ingredients." Processed products containing less that 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use the term "organic" anywhere on the main section of the food label. However, specific ingredients that are organically produced may be identified on the ingredients statement of the information panel.

Further, the new standards require that farms where organic foods are produced be inspected to ensure that all rules and regulations have been followed before a food product can receive the organic classification. Companies that handle or process organic food must also be certified.

For more information about the USDA’s organic standards, visit their Web site at or call the National Organic Program at (202) 720-3252.