When Is Organic Really Organic?

Learning to Tell When 'Organic' on a Label Actually Means 'Organic'

Various fruit, veggies and meats on a table
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You're probably familiar with seeing the term "organic" on products that range from t-shirts to garden soil. But when is "organic" really organic, and when is the term meaningless?

In the most basic of definitions, organic by most dictionary standards means; “Relating to, or derived from living organisms.” However, in the United States, the term organic has come to mean many different things, some of which you probably wouldn't consider truly organic.

The Term Organic is Not Always Well-Defined

The term organic is currently used to describe various sustainable agricultural and food items, textiles, toys, furniture, mattresses, cosmetics, beverages, bath and body care products and many other products. The term organic is also used as an action. For example, "I try to live organically" or, "Organic farming is better for the planet."

In many cases the term organic is used inappropriately. Organic body care products offer a perfect example of when the term organic is used incorrectly; for example, calling a shampoo "organic" that contains harmful chemicals not normally allowed in organic agricultural products.

How to Tell Truly Organic Products

An organic product in the United States always is considered truly organic when the following conditions are met:

The official term for organics that meet USDA organic standards is certified organic, also sometimes called "USDA certified organic." Something that's simply labeled "organic" doesn't necessarily meet the USDA organic standards, which have been in place since 2002.

However, there are still some exceptions to consider when dealing with organic products, since some products can be "truly organic" but not qualify for that USDA Organic Seal.

Exception: Not All Real Organics Are Certified

When a grower uses sustainable growing methods but chooses not to get certified, or is exempt from certification because they sell less than $5,000 worth of organic products annually, it doesn't mean the farmer's products aren't really organic.

For example, an organic blueberry farm may not be officially certified, but may in fact truly grow organic blueberries. This is a tricky exception because it relies on consumer knowledge of sustainable growing methods.

Tricky exception or not, simply not being certified doesn't mean a grower isn't really growing organically, it just means consumers may have a harder time figuring out if the product is truly organic. Without certification to back a product up, the consumer must ask the grower of the product questions about their growing methods to determine organic integrity.

Exception: Some Organics Are Not Certified Correctly

To make the issue of real organics even more tricky, some accredited certifying agents, along with the USDA, have come under fire for certifying products as organic when really the product doesn't always follow USDA standards for organic certification. For example, a 2010 USDA Inspector General report found that the enforcement of federal laws governing organics is abysmal.

Poor certification standards seriously confuse the organic issue, because if organic consumers and the organic industry can't trust the USDA Organic Seal or certifying agents, then they'll have trouble trusting the integrity of the organic industry altogether. This is why organic integrity among organic growers and producers is so important.

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