What does an organic label on meat really mean?

Definitions exist for meat labeled Organic from USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). Other marketing claims may or may not have clear definitions.

The organic agriculture movement has seen steady growth in the past decade, but what are the requirements for labeling meat as such? Animal production marketing claims in general do not have regulatory definitions. Organic labeling is one of the exceptions.

Meat sold as organic must be produced under the National Organic Program (NOP) Regulations (standards).  The meat must be from livestock raised according to Organic standards and processed in a USDA Certified Organic processing facility. Processing facilities that handle Organic meat and nonorganically produced meat must separate products so they never touch each other.

Organic production is defined as a system that has been managed in accordance with The Organic Food Production Act and the NOP Regulations. The National Organic Program is in charge of production, handling, and labeling standards. Organic production is defined as “site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” In regard to labeling a product “Organic,” there are four different classifications. 100% Organic is defined as 100% of the ingredients are certified organic. The use of organic on a label means that 95% or more of the ingredients in the product are certified organic. There is a USDA Organic Seal that can be used on products that are 100% Organic or Organic. Made with organic ingredients is allowed on a label when 70% or more of the ingredients are Organic. The final classification is less than 70% organic ingredients and the organic ingredients are listed in the ingredient statement list only. These classifications are used for all types of Organically labeled food, not just Organically labeled meat.

Certification is needed by all producers and processors that want to label product with the 100% Organic, Organic, or Made with Organic Ingredients statements. Exceptions to this are those producers or processors that sell less than $5,000 per year in organic agriculture products or handlers who do not process, prepare, or repackage products. Certification is achieved through an application process that includes submission of an organic plan followed by an inspection of the operation. Once an applicant achieves certification, annual follow-up inspections occur and can be unannounced or include product residue testing if needed to determine product integrity.

Some of the production standards for raising organic livestock include that the animal is fed organically produced feed; has access to the outdoors (and ruminants must derive 30% of their dry matter intake from pasture grazing during the grazing season); growth promoters or hormones are not used; no antibiotics are used; and mammalian or poultry by-products in feed are not used. 

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