Peeling Back the Label: Certified Organic

This is the first in a series of articles which delve into the core of US eco-farm and food labels in order to help consumers understand their true meaning.

By Shoana van Wyngaarden and Analiese Paik

Now more than ever savvy, eco-conscious consumers are wondering where their food comes from and how it is grown (or raised!), handled and processed.  With this demand for transparency from consumers, a number of new eco-labels have emerged to help the average shopper make more conscious choices about their purchases.  While labels like “Certified Humane Raised & Handled”, “USDA Organic”, “Non-GMO Project Verified” and “Fair Trade” were designed to make identifying products that meet our standards for good and fair food easier, it is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed or confused by their number and variety while browsing the grocery store shelves.

What do these labels really mean and can we trust them?  If we want to buy food that has been fairly traded in South America, humanely treated in Vermont and grown from the purest, unaltered seeds in California, it’s important to first get to know the certifying companies and organizations which set the standards and ensure that farms and food companies adhere to the labels’ promises.  Join us as we embark on an adventure delving into the core of eco-food and farm labels, beginning with USDA Certified Organic.

USDA Certified Organic

Organic food continues to rapidly gaining popularity as more consumers learn about the benefits of eating organic and the dangers of eating so called conventionally grown food, not only for human health, but also for animal welfare and environmental protection.  Sales of organic food and beverages in the U.S. increased from $1 billion in 1990 to $24.8 billion in 2009, yet organic food still only made up 3.7% of overall food and beverages sales in the U.S. in 2009. According to a recent study conducted by the RNCOS Industry Research Solutions, the organic food industry is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 12.2% between 2010 and 2014.

In 1990 the United States Department of Agriculture was required to set national standards for the way organic food was grown, processed and handled after the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. According to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), “organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizer, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.”  Livestock that are raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed, given no antibiotics or growth hormones, and given access to pasture. The Access to Pasture provision added in February 2010 sets very specific standards for ruminant animal confinement, access to the outdoors, and a pasture-based diet. The NOP regulations also prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge in organic production and handling.

Organic product labeling can be quite confusing, however. A product using the USDA Organic seal along with the words “100% organic” must only contain organic ingredients, whereas a product using the same USDA Organic label with the word “organic” must contain at least 95% organic ingredients.  Adding to the confusion is a third label, “contains organic ingredients”, which is not allowed to use the USDA Organic label, but must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. We almost need a handbook to carry around with us to decipher the labels. Mobile app please!

How rigorous is the organic certification process and can consumers be assured that the label guarantees it is truly organic?  Accredited certifying agents (who had long been supporting organic communities even before the USDA created the NOP), are responsible for certifying farmers according to the national standards set by the National Organic Standards Board NOSB and ensuring that certified farms continue to adhere to the NOP standards through annual re-certifications.  The certifying process begins with an extensive documentation of a farm’s annual production plan, including the source of the seeds, fertilizers and pest control methods, storage locations, crop locations and harvest methods. This requires the farmer to maintain thorough records detailing day-to-day activities occurring on the farm, an added expense that should be recovered in the premium consumers are willing to pay for their produce, fruit and meats. A certifier will then inspect the farm to make sure all standards are up to code, conduct soil and water tests to determine if they are free of synthetic chemicals, and finally conduct an interview with the farmer.  A farmer can also expect random on-sight inspections at any time during the year.

National Organic Certification Cost-Sharing Program (NOCCSP)

Many small farmers and producers may be adhering to true organic farming practices (or exceeding them), but choose not to become certified by the USDA due to the time and expense it involves. While the National Organic Program allows farmers growing in accordance with NOP standards who sell less than $5,000 of organic produce annually to call their produce “organic”, it is not certified. Realizing that the cost of certification, or annual renewal for that matter, is prohibitive for small farms, the USDA created The National Organic Certification Cost-Sharing Program (NOCCSP). NOCCSP makes certification more affordable by reimbursing farmers and producers for up to $750 of related expenses annually.

The Connecticut Department of Agriculture (CT DoAG) receives a yearly grant from the NOP to reimburse Connecticut’s Certified Organic Growers & Processors for a portion of their certification fee. According to the CT DoAG, currently 39 of Connecticut’s 40 USDA certified-organic farms utilize this cost-sharing program to offset the cost of the certification fee.  Farmers typically are reimbursed 75% of the application fee, receiving up to $750 back from the USDA.  This is a vital program for the organic industry as it encourages farmers to become and remain certified organic producers, allowing the industry to thrive and give consumers greater access to organic food.

Farmer’s Pledge

An alternative for small farmers who are not USDA certified organic is taking the Farmer’s Pledge,  a designation created by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA).  The goal behind this concept is for farmers to commit to using safe farming practices by reducing their use of pesticides and other harmful chemicals, as well as respect and preserve the land and produce food with integrity.  By signing the Pledge, NOFA farmers vow to not use synthetic chemicals, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), irradiation and sewage sludge, and agree to maintain and build healthy soils, use ethical business practices, and treat livestock humanely. Because there is no official inspection done prior to or after acquiring the Farmer’s Pledge certificate, the system is well suited for people who have a relationship with their farmers and understand their farming practices.  Farms can take the Pledge at any time by contacting the CT NOFA Office at (203) 888-5146 or downloading a copy from their web site. Pledge farmers enjoy the visibility of being listed in CT NOFA’s Annual Farm and Food Guide, widely distributed in print – 15,000 copies in 2010- and also available online at ctnofa.org. You may also visit the CT Do Ag’s web site for a complete list of all Certified Organic, Certified Naturally Grown and Farmer’s Pledge farms.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

The Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program has helped farmers make big steps towards creating a sounder environment.  Encouraging traditional farming practices to evaluate, prevent and control pests has created the notion that these actions should have the least amount of impact on humans and the environment as possible.  More precisely, the EPA defines IPM as “the coordinated use of pest and environmental information with available pest control methods to prevent unacceptable levels of pest damage by the most economical means and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.”  This process involves three main components: Identifying and monitoring pests, preventing pests from becoming a major problem, and controlling them in the least harmful way possible.

Firstly, evaluating the pests is a key factor in determining how to prevent a pest problem or control an existing pest problem.  Not all weeds or insects need to be controlled.  Some insects are helpful because they eat the harmful pests that can leave crops damaged and dead.  Therefore, it is crucial to evaluate the crop types and the insect activity on the plants to be able to distinguish the harmful insects from the beneficial ones.  Once this is done, farmers can begin to use pest control methods that were used before synthetic insecticides were created.  These may include, rotating crops, selecting pest-resistant varieties, or integrating pest-free rootstocks in the crop field.  If preventative methods are no longer effective, less risky pesticides are chosen first in an attempt to control the pest problem.  These may consist of using mechanical trapping devices, the use of natural predators such as insects, pheromones to disrupt pest mating, and if absolutely necessary, chemical pesticides.  The concept behind IPM is honest and socially responsible, however it is not identified on products in the marketplace.  Unlike USDA certified organic, IPM does not have a national certification process and therefore no label to help guide the consumer.

Organic Farms vs. Organic Processed Foods

When we think of organic food, we tend to think of fresh produce or even meats, but what about the processed foods that are considered organic, such as granola bars or the ready-to-eat canned soups?  These foods have been through a processing, handling and manufacturing system that also affects the purity of the organic product. Retail stores and distribution centers that handle certified organic food are just a few examples of places where it can become contaminated by conventional food or synthetic chemicals present in the facility.  facility workers are responsible for keeping holding bins or other storage areas sanitary to maintain the integrity of the organic products.  This means not allowing organic products to come into contact with any unpackaged conventional products, keeping organic items out of storage bins that have synthetic fungicides, preservatives, or fumigants, ensuring that utensils, cutting boards and sinks are thoroughly washed with clean water or a permitted cleanser and not storing conventional food above organic food where melting ice or other prohibited substances can leak onto the organic ingredients.

Furthermore, keeping conventional and organic foods in separate facilities if misting systems are used, not adding prohibited substances to produce sprays or misting systems that may be used on organic produce, as well as keeping convention pest control methods separate from organic food items are all ways to avoid commingling of nonorganic and organic food items.  As mentioned earlier, the USDA Organic  seal means that 95% of the ingredients are organic and 5% may be synthetic or conventionally produced.

Retailers, private label foods, and processors can face up to a $10,000 per violation penalty if they falsely seal their food with the certified organic  label.  The USDA recommends that establishments keep detailed records of the handling and storage of all their products to demonstrate compliance with the NOP.  The USDA however, does not mandate record keeping for retailers or distribution centers.  Records that food establishments are encouraged to keep are “proof of organic certification for direct suppliers, procedures for processing organic products such as grinding organic meat or preparing deli salads, contracts with a private label suppliers, affirming that the manufacturers and their products meet the NOP requirements, and pest-management or sanitation records”.

The unfortunate truth is that not all labels are perfect or created equally.  Some farming concepts seem ethical and just the way food should be produced, yet they are not enforced.  Others are enforced, such as the USDA NOP program, yet it leaves out questions of humane treatment, handling and slaughtering of animals.  We are guaranteed that the animals are fed an all-organic diet, but do they have free access to pasture? Are they free of physical and thermal discomfort? Thankfully, a warm-hearted woman by the name of Adele Douglass founded the national non-profit Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) and created their Certified Humane Raised & Handled program to ensure us that our burgers were once happy cows and our chickens were really free as birds at one point in time.  So what does Certified Humane Raised & Handled mean exactly?  Check back soon to find out in the next article in our series.

Shoana van Wyngaarden is an organic food enthusiast and animal welfare advocate who recently graduated from Suffolk University with a degree in Public Relations. Currently an intern at the Fairfield Green Food Guide, Shoana aspires to a career in public relations with a marketing or organic food company.

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