Farmers Market 101: What Does "Organic" Mean?

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Organic here, organic there, organic everywhere! The Certified Organic label is everywhere you look these days. Did you know it was only first implemented in 2002? Today, you can stroll down any aisle (whether it’s Whole Foods, or a conventional supermarket) and find something that’s organic. Even WalMart is now a huge player in organics. But what does that label really mean? We already know what a GMO is, so here are some main things about the Organic label that you should know.

  • Organic standards are developed at the national level (overseen by the USDA).
  • The USDA does not perform the certification process itself. Third party certification agencies are used.
  • The label is based on farming practices, soil treatment, additives, weed control and pesticides.
  • There are 3 breakdowns of the “Organic” label
    • 100% Organic: All ingredients must be certified organic, any processing aids must be organic, and product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.
    • Organic: All agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, non-organic ingredients up to a combined total of 5% are allowed (excluding salt & water), and product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.
    • “Made With” Organic: At least 70% of the ingredients used to make the product must be certified organic, product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel, and any remaining agricultural products are not required to be organically grown, however, they must be non-GMO. These products will not have an organic label on the package.

What about alcohol? Good question! In addition to the USDA organic label, all alcoholic beverages must meet the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations along with sulfite labeling. This means that products with added sulfites can only have a “made with” organic label, not the USDA Organic seal.

We know this may be a lot of information to retain and recall when food shopping, but it is important! And like we always say, it’s easiest (and the least stressful) to shop at a local farmers’ market where you can trust your farmers and ingredients.

Farmer Mark’s Final Thoughts:
A popular misconception is that the Organic label means no “pesticides” have been used, however, that is not the case. There are many non-synthetic pesticides such as need oil, tea tree oil and clove oil that are used in organic growing. Unfortunately, since Organic is a national standard, and big companies mean big lobbying, more and more synthetic chemicals are now being added to the acceptable list.

Organic comes with a premium price, so choose wisely where you spend your money. The EWG publishes an annual list of conventional foods with the most pesticides (Dirty Dozen) and least pesticides (Clean Fifteen). EWG's Dirty Dozen™ list for 2014 included apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes. EWG's Clean Fifteen™ for 2014 are avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes.

Why is it that “clean” produce needs a label, while “dirty” produce doesn’t? It’s a shame that an Organic grower needs to get annually inspected, pay an annual fee and comply with extra bookkeeping regulations for the right to put an Organic label in its produce. We think it would make more sense for organically grown food to be called “food,” while food grown with synthetic chemicals be required the label. “Chemical” food sounds like an appropriate label to me!