The USDA will certify a farm or ranch as organic, once it has been inspected and found to follow the regulations for organic production. The basics of the guidelines (as far as the government can translate to “real-people speak”) are posted here and here. The actual rule is 48 pages long. In a nutshell, here are the key points a farmer needs to follow to be certified organic: the land must be managed as organic for 3 years before certification can be awarded; buffer zones must be in place to avoid potential contamination from prohibited substances; no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides can be used on land; no antibiotics or growth hormones can be given to animals. Farmers must keep accurate records detailing all the practices and procedures carried out on their farm, lists and sources of each substance (feed, fertilizers, etc) that are used, and a list of their monitoring practices and procedures.
There are different requirements for different species of animals to be considered organic. Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck) and poultry products (eggs) must be under continuous organic management from day 2 of the animal’s life. Milk and milk products (yogurt, cheese, etc) must be from animals that were managed organically beginning no later than one year prior to the sale of the product. Any livestock product must be managed organically from the last third of gestation. (So a pregnant beef cow could be managed non-organically her entire life, but as long as organic management starts before the last 3 months of gestation, her calf is considered organic.)
There is a huge list of “substances” that are and are not allowed in organic production. For animals, there is a list of medications that is allowed, including some pain management medications, vaccines, sedatives, and local anesthetics, but not including any antibiotics. After any medication is given, there is a “withdrawal period.” This is the number of days that farmers must wait before any animal product (milk, meat, etc) can be used for human consumption. The withdrawal periods are different for every drug, but are the same for animals that are not raised organically. There are also requirements for animal housing, and we’ll get into those later, but the requirements for organic are not much different than what is typically done on non-organic farms.
For crop management, there is a list of things that are and are not allowed for fertilizers and pest control. Most synthetic things are not allowed, but most “non-synthetic” things are allowed. So a chemical like Roundup is not allowed for weed control, but manure can be applied as fertilizer.
I have heard people say that you don’t need to wash organic foods because there are no chemicals. That is just plain wrong. While there may be no “synthetic” substances, there are still things that can be applied to organic foods that can be harmful (think of all the bacteria in manure for fertilizer). You definitely still need to wash your organic foods before you eat them.
There are three levels of organic labeling. The first level is “100% organic.” A product can use the 100% organic label as long as it contains only organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).
The second level is “organic.” In order for a product to use this label, it must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. The other 5% must be not available as organic.
The third level is “made with organic ingredients.” A product that uses this label or that specifies the organic ingredients (like the label above) must have at least 70% organic ingredients. It can not be processed with any of the methods that are excluded for organic processing. The USDA organic seal can not be used on the packaging for a food in this category.
Right… so…. clear as mud? It’s tough to decipher all the legal-speak in the official federal rules for organic farming. We’ll get into more of the specifics as we discuss each individual food category.
I tend to not buy organic foods. I am confident in the safety and “wholesomeness” of conventionally produced foods, and in general I do not spend the extra money for organic foods. I have many friends who buy organic foods as much as possible, and I respect their choices, as I hope they respect mine to not always buy organic. Do you buy organic foods? Why or why not?