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Understanding the Organic Food Industry - Part I

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Understanding the Organic Food Industry - Part I

Published: December 21, 2010 Updated: May 27, 2011

According to the USDA's 2009 report, Emerging Issues in the U.S. Organic Industry

If yo-re thinking of entering the organic food business, the following article will give you a better understanding of what it means for a product to be'organi' and the standards of shipping, handling, and labeling or organic products.


What does'organic' mean?


The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines 'organic' as a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The main guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.


For additional definitions of'organi' visit the USDA National Agriculture Library.


How were organic regulations created?


Organic food production systems are managed through the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990, which Congress passed to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop national standards for organically produced agricultural products.


As a part of the OFPA, USDA created the National Organic Program (NOP) to regulate the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced. Implementation of NOP regulations began on April 21, 2001.


What are the standards for organic production and handling?


As the popularity and demand of organic products have grown, producers have taken notice and tailored their marketing efforts to capture the attention of organic consumers. However, it is not as simple as just slapping an organic label on your packaging. Offenders who knowingly sell or label a product as organic that is not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program's regulations face civil penalties of up to $11,000 for each offense. If you want to advertise your product as organic, you must meet certain criteria.


NOP production and handling standards address organic crop production, wild crop harvesting, organic livestock management, and processing and handling of organic agricultural products.

  • Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.


  • Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors and not be given any antibiotics or growth hormones.


The NOP regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic production and handling. As a general rule, all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited.


Note: The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section in the regulations, contains the specific exceptions to the rule.


What are the standards for organic and a 100% organic labeling?


NOP labeling requirements apply to raw, fresh products and processed products that contain organic agricultural ingredients. Agricultural products that are sold, labeled, or represented as organic must be produced and processed in accordance with the NOP standards. Operations whose gross income from organic sales totals $5,000 or less, farm and processing operations that grow and process organic agricultural products must be certified by USDA-accredited certifying agents.


NOP provides the following labeling standards based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product:


  • Products labeled as 100 percent organic must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients and processing aids.


  • Products labeled organic must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt).


Any remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List including specific non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form.


Note: Agricultural products labeled 100 percent organic and organic cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation.


Products meeting the requirements for 100 percent organic and organic may display these terms and the percentage of organic content on their principal display panel. The USDA seal and the seal or mark of involved certifying agents may appear on product packages and in advertisements.


What are the standards for made with organic ingredients labeling?


Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase 'made with organic ingredients' and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel.


  • For example, soup made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients and only organic vegetables may be labeled either 'made with organic peas, potatoes, and carrots,' or 'made with organic vegetables.' The USDA Organic seal cannot be used anywhere on the package.


  • Additionally, processed products that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use the term organic other than to identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced in the ingredients statement.


Is natural the same as organic?


No. Natural and organic are not interchangeable. Even if your products are free-range or hormone-free, it does not mean you can claim they are 'organic.


When you chemically or structurally alter food ingredients into a form that no longer appears anywhere in nature, it's no longer natural. Organic is less about the source of a product and more about the process in which it's produced.


Natural foods are typically processed without preservatives or additives, but may have been grown with the use of pesticides or other conventional methods. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the term 'natural' only as it applies to added color, synthetic substances, and flavors.


Coming Soon...


Understanding the Organic Food Industry Part II


  • Organic certification standards - how do you become a USDA organic certifying agent?


  • Organic accreditation standards - how do you become certified to sell/produce organic products?


About the Author:

Sarah Millican
I'm a digital strategy consultant with ENC Strategy (www.encstrategy.com) and work full-time to support the Small Business Administration in growing and developing this online community to the best that it can be.


Here are three links that provide a clearer answer for your question: http://www.mda.state.md.us/md_products/certified_md_organic_farms/national_organic_program.php National Organic Program http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/torg.html 'Organic' refers not only to the food itself, but also to how it was produced. Organic foods must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources produced and promote biodiversity. These are two key elements of environmentally sustainable agriculture. Crops must be grown without using synthetic pesticides, bio-engineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. According to the EPA, pesticides can be used in organic products, as long as they are not synthetically manufactured. To label a product organic, any pesticide used has to be derived from a natural source. BriaS
Does compliance require no pesticides at all or just no synthetic pesticides?

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