First published July 2009, last updated November 2012
Most people who buy organic foods are happy to pay a premium price to ensure what they are eating is free of artificial preservatives and additives and has been produced in an earth friendly way.
However, there’s something a little rotten with the state of organic foods in many countries.
Not only are consumers being misled, some organic food labeling is also impacting producers who have invested so much time, effort and money into making their produce truly organic by allowing inferior products to share the organic limelight and compete for market share.
In some regions, the term organic has become a little diluted; it’s really a form of greenwashing.
For example, in the USA, products labeled “organic” can contain 5% non-agricultural substances approved by the USDA. These approved substances are supposedly not commercially available in organic form, and some are questionable in terms of health and environmental issues.
It really pays to not only read labels, but then to find out what is stated on the label actually means. The following are brief summaries of organic labeling guidelines in various countries.
USA organic food labeling guidelines
100% organic – must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients and processing aids. The USDA seal may appear on the packaging, but it must detail the certifying agency.
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. The USDA seal may appear on the packaging.
Made with organic ingredients – must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel. The USDA seal cannot be used anywhere on the package
Processed products that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use the term organic anywhere on the *principal* display panel. However, they may identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced on the ingredients statement on the information panel. The USDA seal cannot be used anywhere on the package.
Products using any of the above cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation. The certifying agent seal or mark may be used on the principal display panel.
Source/more information: USDA
Canada organic food labeling guidelines
Organic – must use more than 95% organic content. May use the Canada Organic Logo and/or the designations “Canada Organic” and “Biologique Canada”.
% organic product – must contain 70-95% organic content. These products cannot use the Canada Organic Logo and/or the designations “Canada Organic” and “Biologique Canada”.
Multi-ingredient products with less than 70% organic content may only contain organic claims in the product’s ingredient list.
Certified organic products must also bear the name of the certification body that has certified the product as organic.
Source/more info: Canadian Food Inspection Agency
UK/European Union organic food labeling guidelines
Organic – if 95% or more of the content of agricultural ingredients has been produced organically (according to European Union Organic Standards), the product itself can be described as organic.
If less than 95% of the content of agricultural ingredients has been produced organically, the term organic can only be used to refer to the ingredients which have been organically produced in the list of ingredients on the product label or accompanying documentation. In this case, the ingredients list must also carry a declaration of the proportion of the content of agricultural ingredients which has been produced organically.
Source/more info: Organic Farmers UK
Australia organic food labeling guidelines
100% organic – where 100% mass/mass of all ingredients (excluding water and salt) come from certified organic sources.
Certified organic – where a minimum of 95% mass/mass of all ingredients (excluding water and salt) come from certified organic sources, and where all other materials are allowed under Australian standards for use in certified processed product.
Certified organic ingredients – Where less than 95% but not less than 70% mass/mass of all ingredients (excluding water and salt) are of certified organic origin, and where all other materials are allowed under the Australian standard.
In each of the above, GMO crops and irradiation cannot be used.
Products with less than 70% mass/mass of certified organic ingredients may only make reference to organic in the ingredient list in relation to the ingredient.
Source/more info: Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
The above is only a brief summary of organic food labeling guidelines in various places, but there’s a lot more involved in each case; for example, the most current National Standard For Organic And Bio-Dynamic Produce is around 72 pages long!
It does go to show though that terms containing the word “organic” can be somewhat flexible as to their true meaning and consumers can understandably be not getting quite what they expect – and paid for.