Organic: Behind the Word


The word "organic" gets tossed around a lot these days in common conversation, often with a vague notion of its general meaning.  What many folks don't know is that, unlike most other descriptors found on foods today, "organic" actually has a legal definition.  It's use on labeling and signage is highly regulated and controlled to protect the meaning of the word in the marketplace and forestall its becoming watered down or mis-applied.  Organic certification is the gold standard of food quality precisely because it is just that, a standard, upheld by federal law and verified by third-party certifiers. 

So what does organic mean?  The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) defines organic as follows:

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiatio n. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

--USDA Consumer Brochure: Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts

The USDA's NOP is responsible for administering and enforcing organic standards. It maintains the standard and then accredits as many as 80 different entities as Certifying Agents, allowing these to inspect and certify farms and other producers against that standard.  Some of these certifying agents may be familiar to you from the labels on your food; Quality Assurance international (QAI), Oregon Tilth, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), and Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) are among the more common agents. Further, many agents specialize in overseas operations, effectively carrying the scrutiny of the USDA program onto foreign soil and ensuring that any imported foods carrying the organic seal are indeed produced and processed according to the same standard as domestic producers. 

What kind of teeth does the NOP have?  Originally the certification of organics was a once-a-year project, but thanks to funding from the 2014 Farm Bill the new Organic Integrity Database will now assist in deterring fraud by providing access to accurate information about certified organic operations in real time, enabling market research and supply chain connections, and supporting the data needs of international trading partners. In 2014 the USDA investigated 285 complaints alleging violations of the USDA organic regulations, nearly a 10% increase over the prior year. USDA also publicized 13 fraudulent organic certificates and levied nine civil penalties for $81,500 via settlement agreements for willful violations of the Organic Food Production Act. Additionally, USDA prevailed in an April 2014 administrative hearing against a certified operation that violated the USDA organic regulations and issued its first subpoena under new Farm Bill authority.

But it is not just about enforcement; it is also about making  organic certification more accessible, attainable, and affordable for all operations. The USDA is doing this by implementing a Sound and Sensible approach to organic certification, which includes identifying and removing barriers to certification, streamlining the certification process, focusing enforcement, and working with farmers and processors to correct small issues before they become larger ones. In 2014, USDA awarded project contracts to 13 organizations that will advance the Sound and Sensible.

They also initiated new and expanded efforts to connect organic farmers and businesses with the resources they need to advance the growth of the organic sector domestically and abroad.  They supported internal and university researchers through nearly $220 million over the past six years to improve the productivity and success of organic agriculture, including a number of successful seed-breeding projects.  And they've taken steps to provide effective insurance coverage for organic crops and better risk management tools for organic producers.

The retail organic market is valued at 39.1 billion dollars and growing, so there is a lot at stake.  And the USDA is constantly trying to adapt and upgrade the organic label to make it both safer and more attainable. This is a great improvement since 1992 when the NOP was established and  wasn’t even expected to succeed. This is why certified organic remains the gold standard of food quality. No other eco-label or certification has anywhere near the same level of assurance or clout behind it. When  you choose organic you are assured of supporting farmers and producers who do not rely on outdated production methods that bear a heavy burden of negative side effects to ecological and human health, but who instead use care to produce foods in the best way possible for the long-term health of all involved. 

As consumers, we have the right to see evidence of this certification for any food product that claims the word "organic," and it behooves us to do so, especially as eco-labels of all kinds--including the now virtually meaningless "natural"--are proliferating across packaging and signage like dandelions in an herbicide-free suburban lawn.  Additionally, the fact that a given brand has one organic item in its lineup is no guarantee that other items under that brand will also be organic.

At Blossom, we encourage you always to look for “Certified Organic” when buying your groceries, and ask questions when you don’t see it. If you can buy locally-produced products from local farms and producers you trust, and whose processes you can verify yourself, then the products may be comparable to other products that are certified organic.  Certainly many are.  But certification lends a disinterested and objective eye to the operation and saves consumers from the mammoth task of scrutinizing the production practices of every farm that feeds us.  It especially helps for that vast majority of food products that are produced far from home. Blossom Grocery  primarily sells certified organic products, though we do make some exceptions.  Additionally, some of our offerings that ought to be organic do slip through our filters. We encourage our customers to ask us tough questions about the quality of our products. In a complex food system, we rely on our customers to help us stay true to our principles.