What does the USDA "Organic" label mean?

Helpful health information or marketing hype?

You have decided to change the way you eat.  You have been deluged with advertising about eating “organic.”  You go into the market and “organic” labels jump out at you from every shelf.  What does it all mean?  Is it marketing hype or are there demonstrable benefits?

World War II was the basis of considerable technological innovation, including innovation in agriculture.  Wartime demands led to expanded production and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  The government urged farmers to use these new petroleum-based synthetic chemicals to improve crop yields and assured the public they were safe.  Crop yields did increase but their use resulted in increased water pollution, soil erosion, and the death of beneficial insects, birds, and other animals.

During this same period people were beginning to look at the consequences of agriculture using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  Jerome Irving Rodale(August 16, 1898 – June 8, 1971) was a publisher and an early advocate of sustainable agriculture and organic farming in the United States.  Rodale was concerned about his health and developed an interest in promoting a healthy and active lifestyle that emphasized organically grown foods.  In 1942, Rodale Press started publishing Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, which was later retitled Organic Gardening.  To Rodale, agriculture and health were inseparable; he felt plants grown in soil without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers would help people stay healthier.  He popularized the term "organic" as a term for growing food without pesticides. 

Lady Evelyn Barbara Balfour, OBE (16 July 1898 – 16 January 1990) was a British farmer, educator, and organic farming pioneer.  In 1919, at the age of 21 she and her sister bought New Bells Farm in Haughley Green, Suffolk, using inheritance monies.  In 1939, she launched the Haughley Experiment, the first long-term, side-by-side scientific comparison of organic and chemical-based farming.  It was based on an idea that farmers were over-reliant on fertilizers, that livestock, crops and the soil should be treated as a whole system, and that "natural" farming produced food which was more wholesome than food produced with more intensive methods.  Lady Balfour was a founding figure in the organic movement.

Walter Ernest Christopher James, 4th Baron Northbourne (18 January 1896 – 17 June 1982), was an English agriculturist and author.  Northbourne published Look to the Land in 1940, which raises many of the issues current to discussions of organic agriculture today.  It has been claimed that Northbourne coined the phrase “organic farming,” but Northbourne explicitly denied this.  “I was certainly not the first to apply the word ‘organic’ to farming or gardening, [however] I have never known the ideas and practices involved under any other name.”

Due to increasing requests for information on organic farming, and in light of energy shortages and public concern about food and the environment, the USDA embarked upon a study of organic farming in 1979.

“It has been most apparent in conducting this study that there is increasing concern about the adverse effects of our U.S. agricultural production system, particularly in regard to the intensive and continuous production of cash grains and the extensive and sometimes excessive use of agricultural chemicals. Among the concerns most often expressed are the following: 

(1) Sharply increasing costs and uncertain availability of energy and chemical fertilizer, and our heavy reliance on these inputs.
(2) Steady decline in soil productivity and tilth from excessive soil erosion and loss of soil organic matter.
(3) Degradation of the environment from erosion and sedimentation and from pollution of natural waters by agricultural chemicals. 

(4)  Hazards to human and animal health and to food safety from heavy use of pesticides. 

(5)  Demise of the family farm and localized marketing systems. 

Consequently, many feel that a shift to some degree from conventional (that is, chemical-intensive) toward organic farming would alleviate some of these adverse effects, and in the long term would ensure a more stable, sustainable, and profit able agricultural system.”

USDA Study Team on Organic Farming United States Department of Agriculture, “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming,” July 1980, p. xi.

In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act as part of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (commonly known as the Farm Bill) to establish a national standard for organically produced agricultural products and facilitate the interstate commerce of organic food.  It took over a decade to establish the final national organic standards which were implemented on April 21, 2001, by the US Department of Agriculture through the National Organic Program (NOP).

It took ten years from the USDA study to the passage of the Farm Bill, and another eleven years for the standards to be established.  Why so long?  What do you think was happening during these decades?  Lobbying perhaps?  Long established agricultural interests fighting change?  Or perhaps sensing new marketing opportunities?

 “What does the USDA Organic label mean?”

The intent of organic production requirements is to improve and maintain the quality of the land, water, and air, avoid using synthetic substances and provide livestock animals with food and habitat conducive to their health and wellbeing.  The requirements start with the soil in which plants are grown, how plants are grown and animals raised, how plants and animals are handled and processed, and ultimately what is told to consumers about the path from the farm to the store.

Soil and Seeds

For at least three years immediately before harvest, no prohibited substance may be applied to land used to grow organic crops.  The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances identifies which synthetic substances may be used and which natural substances may not be used to grow crops, raise livestock, and process packaged foods.  In addition, buffer zones are required to prevent unintended application of prohibited substances from adjoining land that is not under organic management.  Instead of applying synthetic fertilizers, soil fertility and health are sustained by selecting plants appropriate to the area, rotating crops, planting cover crops (to provide soil nutrients like nitrogen), applying plant materials, and spreading animal manure (usually composted).  Organic seeds, seedlings, and planting stock are required, with a few exceptions.

Pest, Weed, and Disease Management

Pests are controlled by planting a variety of crops together (less food for specific pests), introducing pest predators, and using lures and traps.  Mulching, mowing, weeding, and livestock grazing keep weeds down.  Applying non-synthetic biological, botanical, and mineral inputs suppress the spread of disease.  When the preferred prevention and control practices are insufficient, an allowed substance from the National List may be used, provided that it is documented in the organic system plan each certified operation is required to submit annually.

Livestock Origin, Feed and Health Care

To sell livestock as organic, it must be under continuous organic management from the last one-third of gestation or hatching, except organic management must begin on the 2nd day of life for poultry, and dairy animals must be under organic management for 1 year prior to production of milk or milk products.

Feed for livestock follows the same requirements as food crops.  Certain practices are prohibited such as: administering drugs or hormones to promote growth; feed supplements above those needed for animal nutrition and health; feed containing plastic pellets, urea, manure, slaughter by-products, or antibiotics.

Ruminants (cows, goats, and sheep) are required to have access to pasture grazing for not less than 120 days a year and must receive at least thirty-percent of their dry food from grazing.  Yards, feeding pads, and feedlots may be used temporarily and under certain circumstances like bad weather, for milking or shearing, to treat illness, and to sort for shipping.  Ruminants that are grain finished, meaning they are fed grain instead of pasture just prior to slaughter, may not spend more than 120 days or one-fifth of their lives in a feedlot.  Livestock treated with prohibited substances may not be sold as organic.


The USDA regulates how organically produced and handled raw and processed agricultural products (food, non-food crops, and livestock feed) is categorized and labeled.  Organic food falls into one of three categories: 100% organic, organic, or made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups).

100% Organic

All ingredients must be 100% organic.  The name of the product may be modified with the words “100% organic.”  The USDA Organic seal and name and seal of the certifying agent may be used on the product or package.


Products labeled organic must contain not less than 95% organic ingredients.  The remaining ingredients may be non-organically produced if not available in organic form and must still comply with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. The name of the product may be modified with the word organic and organic may be used to preface organic ingredients.  The USDA Organic seal and name and seal of the certifying agent may be used on the product or package.

Made with Organic

The made with organic designation is for products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients.  The other ingredients may not be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation.  The organic ingredients may be prefaced with the word organic, for instance, organic wheat. The USDA seal may not be used; however, the name and seal of the certifying agent may be used on product packaging.


Technically there is a fourth category; products containing less than 70% organic ingredients.  In this case, National Organic Program production and handling requirements only apply to the organic ingredients.  No organic seals or statements may be made on the packaging.  Organic ingredients may be prefaced with the word organic, for example, “organic cane syrup.”

You are now armed to decipher the USDA National Organic Program “organic” labels, or are you?  Does the USDA National Organic Program answer everything you need to know about eating better?

Look at the NOP requirements again, specifically the requirements for ruminants, which “must receive at least thirty-percent of their dry food from grazing.”  What do they eat for the other seventy percent?  The answer should be obvious … “corn,” specifically Field Corn.  Is the Field Corn “organic” or does it fall under the “5% rule?”  Further, “[r]uminants that are grain finished, meaning they are fed grain instead of pasture just prior to slaughter, may not spend more than 120 days or one-fifth of their lives in a feedlot.”  “Grain finished” = “corn-fed.”  “Feedlot” = CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation).  Thus, producers can still sell meat as “organic” even though it is largely raised on Field Corn and the cows are “finished” in a feedlot.  You are paying higher prices for “organic” but still buying industrial Field Corn.

“The alternative to factory-farm meat – grass-fed meat – is not just better for the environment and better for the animals, but better for you, too. … Grass-fed meat is so nutritionally superior to factory-farmed meat that it is practically a different food.”

Dr. Mark Hyman, WTF Should I Eat?: The No-nonsense Guide to Achieving Optimal Weight and Lifelong Health (Yellow Kite, February 20, 2020).  Dr. Hyman is the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, the Head of Strategy and Innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, and Board President for Clinical Affairs for The Institute for Functional Medicine.

Which do you prefer?

Look for meats certified by the American Grassfed Association (AGA).  Animals raised according to AGA standards are raised only in open grass pastures, are free to graze rather than confined, free of antibiotic and growth hormone, and born and raised on family farms in the US.  As you can undoubtedly surmise, even within the AGA standards there are differences … what breed of animal, where raised, how raised.

Read the labels on the food you buy.  The next time you are in the grocery store, do your own comparisons.  For beef, the labeling is typically consistently clear; if the beef is grass-fed, the label says so.

Labeling on lamb is likewise typically consistently clear.  Note that some of the lamb labels also identify the country of origin (Australia) and the certification authority.

The labeling on poultry is not as clear.  The labels of virtually every package of “organic” chicken say “no antibiotics,” “no hormones,” and “vegetarian feed;” only a few say the feed itself is organic.  Some say “free range,” others “cage free,” which means the same thing.  Some identify the vegetarian feed as “non-GMO.”  It is up to you to assess the distinctions.

Interestingly, I could not find any “organic” labeling on pork anywhere.

You get to choose how you live.  The choices you make affect not only your quality of life, but also that of your community and the environment.  The labelling associated with the USDA National Organic Program is a beneficial and useful starting point … a starting point.  Besides the “organic” ingredients, what else is in the food you buy?  The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances is an interesting starting point for further inquiry, and then there is what we continue to learn about food ingredients themselves … which contribute to health and which do not.


Now a plug for one of our personal favorites … Desert Mountain 100% Grass-Fed Beef (www.desertmountaingrassfed.com).  I call your attention to their story, their ranchers and their culture.  The Desert Mountain ranchers raise Akaushi cattle.  Akaushi beef, colloquially called red wagyu, is much leaner than more traditional beef, and has a rich buttery flavor as well as juiciness and tenderness throughout.  We want to support the culture of the Desert Mountain ranchers; great meat grown in concert with nature for the long-term. 

“Learning to use the circle of life to create the best soils, the best environment for all life beneath and above the soil while producing a quality beef product.”