An eater’s guide to understanding certified organic labeling

Farmers go through a complicated process in order to achieve organic certification.

 Many people don’t understand what the word “organic” means when buying either fresh or packaged foods. The label has some very important differences from other food that you buy but it may not mean exactly what you think.

What does the label “organic” imply about the food that you see at the grocery store? Does it mean that the food is more healthy or nutritious? What does the farmer who grows that produce have to do to use that label.                          

Technology and chemicals developed during World War II and the demand for food following the war prompted the development of petroleum- and chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides to help to improve yields, according to Iowa State University Extension. This method of production, utilizing synthetic chemicals, became commonplace as it helped create consistency, but it also brought environmental consequences. In recent years there has been a new focus on a return to agriculture without the use of synthetic chemicals. That kind of farming practice is commonly referred to as organic. Farmers can now be certified organic and utilize the USDA Certified Organic seal.

Farmers who utilize organic practices focus on building nutrients into their soil through organic means including compost, composted manures (for nitrogen), bone meal (for phosphorus), and wood ash (for potassium). In addition, organic farmers use biological, cultural and physical methods to control harmful pests and increase the presence of beneficial insects such as pollinators. These pest control methods involve timing pest control intervention to the lifecycle of the pest so that they can use narrow controls. For example, a farmer could introduce beneficial ladybugs to feed on harmful aphids or mites. Organic farmers also pay close attention to the selection of seed and plant varieties that have not been genetically modified. Organic dairy and meat products cannot contain any antibiotics or growth hormones. Processors must also carry organic certification.

As a result of the time and effort that must be paid to insure that food is grown using these organic practices, the label “organic” is defined by law and requires that the farm closely follow the standards of organic practice defined by the certification process. The USDA has a National Organic Standards Board which creates the guidelines for certification and controls the USDA Certified Organic seal. Farmers apply for certification, pay for an organic certification reviewer to visit their farm during the growing season and allow a full inspection of their farming operation. The misuse of the organic label can result in fines of up to $11,000 per violation.

Consumers can learn more about agricultural labels and standards by talking to the farmers that they buy from at farmers markets and farm stands and seeking additional information about farming and farm systems. Michigan State University Extension provides community food systems educational programming and technical assistance. To contact an extension educator, use MSU Extension’s “Find an Expert” tool and search using the keywords, “community food.”

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