What Is the USDA Organic Seal?

The organic seal can help you identify foods that meet organic standards

Photo courtesy of Organic Trade Association

The USDA organic seal is a seal, or a label, that is displayed on products that have been certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

This seal, which has become recognizable to consumers seeking to purchase organic products, can help you choose the right organic items to purchase. However, the seal has some limitations.

Most importantly, it applies only to food products. Therefore, if you see skin care or clothing products that are sporting an "organic" label, know that they are not certified organic.

You shouldn't see a USDA organic seal on those products.

In addition, the smallest organic food producers don't need to apply for organic certification in order to display the seal. Finally, food products that carry the USDA organic seal may not be 100% organic, and the USDA does allow certain additives.

Here's what you need to know about the USDA organic seal, and what it means for foods that bear it.

Different Types of Certified Organic Products

The USDA recognizes two levels of certified products that are allowed to bear the USDA organic seal. They include:

  1. 100% USDA certified organic products. These must be made with 100% organic ingredients in order to display the USDA Organic Seal.
  2. Organic products. These products, which aren't 100% organic, must be made with at least 95% organic ingredients in order to display the USDA organic seal.

Any product with less than 95% certified organic ingredients may not display the USDA Organic Seal.

The USDA organic seal also is known as the USDA organic label, the organic seal, and the NOP seal or label (for the National Organic Program, the agency within the USDA that actually runs the initiative).

Limits to Organic Certification

As reported above, some food products that carry the USDA organic seal aren't 100% organic.

In order to carry the seal, foods must contain 95% or more organic ingredients, so a product that's only half organic won't qualify.

As an example, if a company that makes apple juice is certified USDA organic then its 100% to 95% organic apple juice may wear the USDA organic seal. However, if the company finds a great buy on non-organic apples and decides to lower the percentage of organic juice in its apple juice to 75%, that juice no longer will qualify to wear the USDA organic seal.

Organic foods also can contain some non-agricultural ingredients as additives and still carry the USDA organic seal. For example, an organic company can use pectin in its organic fruit jellies and jams, enzymes to make organic yogurt, or baking soda in its organic muffins and still place the seal on its packaging.

However, organic foods cannot contain artificial preservatives, dyes, or flavoring ingredients. Therefore, a food that's dyed red with organic plant extracts from beets or other organic plants can carry the seal, but a food that's dyed red with a chemical dye cannot.

Small Producers Exempt from Certification

Very small organic food producers — those with less than $5,000 in organic sales annually — do not have to apply for organic certification.

However, their food production and handling must comply with organic standards, and they have to keep careful records.

Learn more about the USDA organic seal: