ecomii - a better way
April 21, 2018  |  Login
Looking For Organic on Labels
By Yvonne Jeffery, Liz Barclay & Michael Grosvenor

Organic food is much more plentiful than it used to be; demand for it continues to increase, so retailers are responding with a wider range of organic products at lower prices. Now most of the big food retailers sell organic fruit, vegetables, and meat, as well as processed foods like bread and breakfast cereal and other foods.

The USDA's National Organic Program has strict rules about what food manufacturers can and can't say regarding organic foods on food labels. Specifically, if a food label has the National Organic Program's seal on it (see below), the producer has been certified under the program. The specifics of the wording, however, are where the differences lie.

The USDA's seal confirms that a product is organic.

Here are the USDA's labeling terms, with explanations:

  • 100 Percent Organic: All ingredients in the product are organic.

  • Organic: At least 95 percent of the product's ingredients are organic.

  • Made with Organic Ingredients: At least 75 percent of the product's ingredients are organic.

  • Organic ingredients noted on the ingredients statement: Less than 70 percent of the product's ingredients are organic, so the producer can identify only the actual organic ingredients within the ingredients listing on the product label.

Meat packaging has additional terminology that you should be aware of, although at this point, no third-party inspectors verify these claims, and you're therefore trusting the packager:

  • Natural: Labels may refer to beef and lamb, in particular, as being produced naturally, but this designation means only that the meat may not have any artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. Natural production doesn't necessarily mean that the animals led the life of Riley outside, gamboling in the fields.

  • Grass fed: Feeding cows primarily on grass or hay rather than on grain is considered greener (and kinder) because they can digest grass and hay more easily.

  • Free-range: This term means that chickens, for example, weren't confined to cages. There are different degrees of free-range, however - from true free-range where the chickens are allowed to wander in a fairly large space outside to more limited conditions where they may have only short periods outside in an area that's quite small. You may not be able to tell exactly what free-range means when you see it on meat packaging, so if you're looking at a specific product, consider contacting its producer directly for clarification.

The next time you're in the produce aisle, check out the little label that's stuck on the fruit: You should see either a four- or a five-digit code on the label. A four-digit code means that the produce was produced conventionally (it's not organic). A five-digit code that starts with "9" indicates that it's organically grown, and a five-digit code that starts with "8" indicates that it's genetically engineered.

You can get more information on the regulations of food labeling from the FDA at

Any food producer in the United States that wants to use the word "organic" in its labeling has to follow the National Organic Program, and any producer that's selling more than $5,000 worth of organic food a year has to become certified under the program. In order to become certified, the land has to have been treated organically for at least three years, and an organic plan must be in place to explain production practices and substances. (Converting to organic farming takes time - time for all the existing pesticides and fertilizers to disappear from the soil.) The producer then applies for certification, which involves an initial inspection and then annual inspections for as long as the producer wants to be part of the program. The program's inspectors can show up unannounced, and they can test the food for residues if they think that it may have been in contact with nonorganic substances.

When labels are unclear, learn some failsafe ways of ensuring the food you buy is local.



ecomii featured poll

Vote for your Favorite Charity



the ecomii eight
1 Winter Squash   5 Pistachio Stuffing
2 Chestnuts   6 Cap & Trade
3 Carbon Footprint   7 Pecan Pie
4 Supplements   8 Parenting
ecomii resources
ecomii Tips Newsletter 

Sign up today to receive a weekly tip for living greener

Get in Touch

Got suggestions? Want to write for us? See something we could improve? Let us know!