What Does "Organic" Really Mean?

There is quite a bit of confusion about what “organic” really means, and we often get asked about it. Hopefully this quick tutorial will help you better understand how to be a better consumer of organic products.
Levels of Organic: Certified Organic vs. Organic
There are 3 different levels of organic, and understanding which level a product is makes you a more informed consumer. All levels of organic are subject to authorized 3rd party inspection to insure strict adherence with USDA Organic Regulations.

  • Certified Organic (or 100% Organic) – These are products that contain 100% organic ingredients. Only certified organic products can use the terms “100% organic” or “certified organic” and can display the USDA Organic seal.
  • Organic – These products must contain 95% or more of ingredients that are certified organic.  These product must not contain any (0%) genetically modified organisms (GMO) and are also subject to inspection and other restrictions.  Organic products may use the term “Organic” on the front label, (but not “100%” or “certified”) and may use the USDA Organic seal.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients – These products must contain 70% or more of ingredients that are certified organic. The remaining non-organic products must be GMO free, and are subject to inspections and regulations. These products may not use the USDA Organic label, and can say no more than “Made with Organic Ingredients”.
Products that contain less that 70% certified organic products cannot claim to be organic. They may list individual ingredients as organic on the side or back label.
Getting Organic Certified
Certified Organic producers must comply with strict guidelines and are regularly inspected by 3rd party agencies for compliance with strict USDA regulations. We (Living Whole Foods, Inc.) are inspected by the Utah Department of Agriculture and we are issued a certificate each year to maintain our status.
Here is a partial list of we must do to maintain our status as a certified organic producer:
  • Supply Chain – We must verify that every supplier we use from farm, to the vendors the farm uses, to the wholesalers & suppliers are certified organic providers, and we must maintain documentation of that supply chain from beginning to end.
  • Transportation – Every time we receive a shipment of certified organic product, we must physically inspect and document that the delivery truck is clean, that organic products are sealed in impermeable containers, and are shipped on a separate skid without non-organic products.
  • Packaging & Labeling – We must meet the labeling guidelines as noted above, and must include lot numbers and other details about the product which vary depending on the ingredient type. All organic labeling must disclose the certifying agency and the labels must be approved by that certifying agency.  Product must be sealed so as to not allow co-mingling of organic and non-organic ingredients.
  • Inspection – We are inspected regularly. Our inspection process typically lasts many hours, and includes exhaustive examination our records, cleanliness standards, audit trail, process and work flow, organic integrity, labels and countless other factors.
  • Documentation – We must maintain documentation of all product we receive and ship, including purchase orders, customs forms, quality tests, non-gmo certifications, product profiles, equipment cleaning logs, production summary reports, storage records, invoices by lot number and much more.
  • Much more – Other standards we must meet include pest control procedures, equipment maintenance, sanitation, storage, water use, etc…  And of course we pay a surprisingly expensive annual certification fee.
Compliance with USDA Regulations
Sadly some producers claim that their product is organic when in fact it is not.  If for example, a seed supplier who is not organic certified purchases bulk seed from a certified organic supplier and then re-packages it, that seed ceases to be organic!  It is now just conventional seed. That uncertified supplier may not label that product as organic in any form, because it is not organic anymore. Passing off non-organic product as organic and other non-compliance with applicable laws are subject to USDA enforcement and very steep fines.
We hope this quick tutorial helps you to be a better informed consumer of organic products. From a purely health point of view, if a product contains non-organic ingredients, doesn’t that really defeat the purpose of “organic” in the first place?  We will let you be the judge.
If you’d like to know more, the USDA has created a great overview and FAQ about the process that you can find here: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004346


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