When you look through a produce section at the grocery store, you will likely find both organic and nonorganic items for sale. To be labeled organic, foods must meet United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards. Companies or farmers can not just label something “organic” without meeting these standards. The USDA sets organic standards for crops and livestock, as well as the handling process.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), producing organically has been a practice by farmers since the late 1940s. There was organic farming before, but in the late 1940s is when farming organically was done with the intention of choosing to grow organic. The definition of organic is not cut and dry because there are organic products in both the crop and livestock industry. The USDA explains, “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods.”
Crops can be called organic if it is certified that they have been grown in soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. The prohibited substances are most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. To go further in depth, the USDA states that the farming operation must use organic seeds and other planting stock if available. Also, the land must be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, cover crops, and crop rotation. The land can be supplemented with animal and crop waste materials, as well as allowed synthetic materials. To manage pests, weeds, and disease, growers must use physical, mechanical, and biological ways to control the issue they face. There are some biological, botanical, and synthetic substances approved for use.
Standards for livestock and poultry apply to animals used for meat, eggs, milk, or other animal products sold, labeled, or represented as organic. Again, organic products must meet USDA standards to have an official “organic” label on them. The EPA does a good job of summarizing the standards for livestock and poultry. They explain, “...regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.”
The USDA has further specifics for organic livestock and poultry, which include the following points. Animals must be raised under organic management from the last third of gestation to be considered organic. Poultry has to be raised in these conditions from no later than the second day of life. Producers must feed 100% organic products, but are allowed to provide approved vitamin and mineral supplements. To keep animals healthy, preventative management practices must be used. If a sick animal has to be treated with a prohibited substance, they simply can not be sold as organic. Ruminant animals have to be out on pasture for the entire grazing season (not less than 120 days), and receive 30 percent of their feed from pasture. Finally, all organic livestock and poultry must have access to the outdoors year-round.
Handling processes for food and other animal byproducts have standards to be organic as well. The USDA standards for handling are the following. First, all non-agricultural ingredients must be approved. Approved ingredients are found on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. The other important part of the handling process is that organic and nonorganic items stay separate. If organic items are left around with nonorganic products, organic products could be exposed to prohibited substances.
The last step of the process of an organic item is the labeling. Any product labeled as organic must meet 95% certified organic content at minimum. Any product sold as “made with organic” must have 70% certified organic content. If a product has less than 70% organic content, specific ingredients in the product can be listed as organic.