Understanding Organics

More than just a label

Organics have a new look now, offering retailers a chance to educate customers and staff. Beyond GORP (Good Organic Retailing Practices) and retailer certification, there is further need for information, explanation and understanding of organics. Having the answers and resources to meet this educational opportunity helps to cement the relationship between store and customer.

What makes organic food different?

Organic food is grown on farms that conserve soil and water quality. It cannot be harvested until at least three years after the last application of synthetic fertilizers and/or pesticides. Precautions are taken to prevent the food from being contaminated with materials that are prohibited in organic production and to prevent non-organic food from being mixed with the organic.

Organic meat and dairy products come from animals that have not been confined. These animals are fed organic feed and are not given antibiotics or hormones. If an organic animal needs medication, it is never withheld. After treatment with medication the animal and/or its products will no longer be sold as organic.

An "audit trail" traces all organic sales from field to consumer.

What about the "Big Three"?

Genetically Modified Organisms, sewage sludge and irradiation are "excluded methods" and are not allowed in organic production at any stage.

Organic labels--what do they mean?

The USDA Organic label may be used on products that are certified by a USDA accredited certifier. All products must show the name of the certifier. This way the product can be traced back to the individual producer and handlers that were part of the item's journey from the farm to the retail store.

USDA created four levels of organic. Foods must be labeled accurately according to the percentage of organic ingredients in the product.

"100% Organic" 100% of the ingredients in the product are organic.

"Organic" 95% or more of the ingredients in the product are organic.

"Made with Organic..." 70% or more of the ingredients in the product are organic.

"Organic Ingredients" The word "organic" may be used on the side or back panel of the product to describe the ingredients if less than 70% of the product ingredients are organic.

What happens if someone sells a product as organic when it is not?

The new regulation offers an enforcement procedure and a penalty (a fine of up to $10,000) for violation. If you suspect that someone is violating the regulation, you can make a complaint. First, gather the information you need: the label and/or packaging the item came with; if it is raw product such as fruit or vegetables, ask the manger of that department to give you the name of the producer and certifier of the product. Then write a letter or statement describing what you think is wrong. Putting this in writing is important. Keep a copy of the letter. Make sure it has a date on it.

The first place to file a complaint would be with your state--IF your state has an organic program. Your Department of Agriculture can tell you who your organic contact is. In absence of a state program, contact the USDA directly and they will turn it over to their compliance department to investigate.

If a customer comes to you with a concern about the organic food purchased at your store, assist them with making a complaint. You'll soon find out why keeping records of your organic purchases and documenting the certified status of your suppliers are important. As the last handler of organic food before it goes on a consumer's plate, your diligence here will strengthen consumer confidence.

Must all products labeled "organic"meet the U. S. standard?

As of October 21, 2002, yes. This applies to all organic products--whether grown in or outside of the United States. Even exempt and excluded operations must meet requirements and maintain recordkeeping like certified operations do.

What about "natural" and other labels?
Don't they mean the same thing as organic?

No. There are a lot of so-called "eco-labels" being used on products today. The use of the term "organic" is different because it is regulated. The producers and handlers of organic food must have been certified to be in compliance with the USDA regulation. At each step along the way, there have been recordkeeping and annual inspections. Only food labeled "organic" is certified to meet the USDA organic standards. Without such a strong quality assurance process, unregulated label claims may mean nothing.


For more detailed information, contact the USDA National Organic Program at 202/720-3252 or at: www.ams.usda.gov.nop. Copies of the USDA brochure "Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts" are available on request. These make excellent point of sale handouts. Also contact ATTRA: 800/346-9140, [email protected].

Cissy Bowman manages Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, a non-profit educational organization: 8364 S. SR 39, Clayton, IN 46118; 317/539-4317; or [email protected].

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