Nutrition

Can you still trust the USDA Certified Organic label?

When we buy organic food, we expect certain qualities: that it’ll be good for us and the planet, that they will be free of harmful chemicals, and that they will not involve genetic engineering. Some of us also expect organics to be sustainably grown, more nutritious, and ethically raised, to boot.

But at eye’s glance, there’s no way to tell if food is organic or conventionally grown (save maybe the worm you found in your lettuce that one time). This is why organic certification standards were developed in 1990, along with the USDA Certified Organic label: so we could know if we’re truly buying organic or not.

For growers and producers to legally claim “organic” on their products (and set premium prices needed for covering organic farming's more laborious inputs), they must adhere to strict government standards, use only certain chemicals and practices, and be subject to inspections ensuring they follow these rules.

However, recent developments have shaken consumers’ trust in the USDA Organic label. Aurora, a top dairy producer in the country, was found ducking organic standards, selling conventional milk under the guise of organic.

The Aurora scandal exposed glaring gaps in organic inspections. Some inspections are scheduled in advance, giving a businesses time for a cover-up, and certifiers don’t always inspect at crucial times during the season. USDA inspection at Aurora, for example, happened during winter months—though peak grazing season happens in summer. That way, inspectors didn’t catch that operators weren’t grazing their 15,000 head of dairy cows on grass as organic standards required.

Meanwhile, imported chemically-treated corn and soybeans were deliberately mislabeled organic to boost profits, when they entered the United States, further shaking consumer faith in the certified label.

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What does all of this mean for the future of organic standards?

ORGANIC FRAUD

Fortunately, organic certification agencies are stepping up in response to organic fraud. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) announced that they would be tightening up their fight against fraudulent organics, and Miles E. McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program (NOP, the regulatory agency determining organic certification standards for the USDA) says the NOP is taking steps to counter future fraud.

“Enforcement actions are underway against parties involved in the alleged misuse of the organic seal,” McEvoy said. “Over the last few months NOP has provided additional training to certifiers to strengthen oversight in the supply chain.”

Organic is certainly not perfect, but the process of enforcement—like anything else—may be a learning curve. McEvoy continued later: “We protect organic farms and businesses who are playing by the rules by taking enforcement actions, and impose fines on those who break the rules.”

WHAT "CERTIFIED ORGANIC" GUARANTEES

Many of us tend to stuff more meaning into “certified organic” than what’s actually there, on top of giving the USDA our blind trust? Per the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, the label focuses mostly on inputs, with the objective of minimizing environmental impacts.

McEvoy also described the bent of the label’s standards. “Organic is a labeling term for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity,” he said. “Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

Organic still allows the use of select few synthetic pesticides and herbicides, of note. In animal products like meat, dairy, or eggs on the other hand, provisions are made for ethical slaughtering practices, livestock handling and transport, living conditions, use of organic-certified feed, and no use of antibiotics or hormones.

WHAT “CERTIFIED ORGANIC” IS NOT

“Organic” may be strict in some modes of production, but it does leave some questions unanswered. Sure, the label cuts negative environmental and health impacts with the prevention of chemical use and generally improves the lives of animals.

However, the USDA is loose with bigger picture environmental issues: such as whether a business has overall beneficial impacts on the surrounding environment (beyond just chemical use). In the same vein, good soil practices are not an organic requirement, either.

And for some, protection of animals doesn’t go far enough at all. Emily Moose is Director of Outreach at A Greener World, a third-party nonprofit certification program that runs the Animal Welfare Approved label, along with Certified Grass-Fed and Certified Non-GMO labels.

“Most [certified organic animal] products in the marketplace come from organic feedlots and organic poultry houses—not what consumers expect when they see the organic label,” Moose said.

There’s also the question of nutrition and healthiness. Do organic standards guarantee more nutrition-packed food? On the one hand, omega-3 fatty acid content in meat, dairy, and eggs is better in animals fed their natural diet (as in grass-fed beef), which is enforced by organic standards.

But fruits and vegetables are a different story. Research shows actual organic methods do little for nutrition (except for strong evidence in favor of antioxidants), and that it’s actually other approaches often used alongside organics that are the reason for more nutrients: such as the varieties you choose, for example (especially non-GMO’s and some modern cultivars) and responsible soil practices that boost organic matter that retain nutrients better. (On the other hand, there are significant health hazards that conventional farming exposes you to that organic farming does not—here are 3 science-backed ways organic food is better for your health.)

GOING BEYOND THE ORGANIC LABEL

The good news: there are alternative and complementary labels to USDA organic that may help patch up these holes.

Certified Naturally Grown. One of these is Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), a persuasive alternative for smaller diverse produce farmers pursuing organic—and thus, a trustworthy seal for consumers.

Alice Varon, Executive Director of CNG, said, “Certified Naturally Grown farmers produce food without the use of synthetic chemicals or genetically modified seeds, just like organic farmers. But there are some key differences between CNG and organic. First, CNG is specifically for community-based farms selling in local markets, not agribusiness operations supplying wholesalers”

Continued Varon, “Second, CNG inspections are peer-reviews, carried out by fellow farmers and other stakeholders in the community….and last, many local farmers find the costs and paperwork requirements of CNG certification considerably more affordable than what's required for USDA organic certification.” Of note, Certified Naturally Grown has comparatively more focus on good soil management practices, too. (Here are 5 ways you can improve the soil in your own backyard or garden.)

Non-GMO Verified. Certification through a similar program, the Food Alliance, puts environmental standards under their close watch: particularly the well-being of nearby wildlife and biodiversity beyond chemical impacts. To focus on genetic engineering issues above and beyond the USDA’s parameters, the Non-GMO Verified label thoroughly vets both food and ingredients in any products for genetic engineering.

Erin Matchett, Marketing Manager and media representative for the label, said, “Testing for GMO’s may be done as part of the 5% testing requirement under the USDA organic certification process, or when contamination is suspected, but is not specifically required.

“On the other hand, in order to be Non-GMO Project Verified, major GMO risk ingredients must be tested on an ongoing basis to ensure that they are compliant with the Non-GMO Project Standard,” she added.

For a bigger focus on quality of life in livestock and animals, Certified Humane Raised and Handled—as well as Animal Welfare Approved (AWA)—fill in the gaps for meat, dairy, and eggs.

Animal Welfare Approved seems the more rigorous of the two. Said Emily Moose, “AWA requires pasture- and range-based management for all certified species, whereas organic does not.

“Many people are surprised to learn that while organic standards address the type of cleaning products used, they don’t address things like proper stunning or humane handling…Welfare Approved prohibits beak-trimming, teeth-clipping and tail-docking—all of which are permitted under organic standards.”

Moose viewed AWA as a complement to or replacement of USDA organic. “These are some of the reasons that a significant number of producers who are certified organic also seek out Animal Welfare Approved certification…and why consumers seek out the Animal Welfare Approved label in addition to (or instead of) the organic label.”

Certified Humane Raised And Handled. Adele Douglass, creator of Certified Humane Raised and Handled and Executive Director of Humane Farm Animal Care, described their own processes compared to organic.

“The Certified Humane label covers animals from birth through slaughter,” she said. “…organic standards call for ‘outdoor access’.  Except in the instance of cows, it is not very specific.”

Douglass and Certified Humane still deem USDA organic an important stamp. “I think the organic label is very important, for produce, for fruits and vegetables. That should never disappear,” she said. “We have many farms on our program that are [both] Certified Humane and Organic.”

Moose and AWA disagree. “As [USDA organic certification] stands today, it does not have a strong purpose in our food system—the label simply doesn’t mean what people expect.”

Ultimately, the USDA’s failure to enforce organic standards may cast a shadow over the term “organic.” To some—especially farmers—this creates a real struggle for those working to uphold “organic” as a term transcending how the USDA defines it. Caite Palmer, a sustainable—but not organic certified— farmer of Prairie’s Edge Farm in Castalia, Iowa, shared her own perspective. “I think that so many consumers use the organic label as a substitute for knowing their farmer, without really understanding what the certification entails,” she said. 

But Varon of Certified Naturally Grown sees the continued need for the certified organic label for all growers. “It would be a mistake to dismiss the entire organic program because of some bad actors,” she says. “It's important to preserve public trust in the organic program so that it can continue to play an important role in moving our food system in a more sustainable direction.”

This article first appeared on Rodale's Organic Life