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Organic: What Does It All Mean Anyway?

WARNING: Not all organic labels are created equally! 

OK, that may not be a revelation, but it seems to me that, since the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) instituted organic labeling, the issue of what is really “organic” has become more confusing. So, it’s worth a quick here look at some of the organic options and what they mean.
I’d like to start out by pointing to the strongest, most reputable organic labels that I am aware of:
·        * California Certified Organic Farmers (
·        * Oregon Tilth certified (
Both of these organizations have been in operation for a long, long time, and when you see their labels, you know that you are getting some of the strongest organic standards in the world.
But exactly what does “organic” mean? Personally, I would like to make some very basic assumptions, primarily, that produce are grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and that animals are raised without antibiotics and growth hormones. 
For produce, it also means that the soil is clean of chemical fertilizer or pesticide residue, and animals are not fed any non-organic grains. Animal welfare should also be a consideration, so animals should be treated humanely and be provided access to the outdoors to be considered organic.
This is pretty much where USDA Certified Organic Standards begin. Unfortunately, as with so many federal laws and standards, USDA also provides loopholes for big corporations.
Let me say that I am not writing this to bag on USDA or to raise fears about the federal organic labeling process, and if your goal is to eat more organic foods, you are doing better by buying an organic brand from a big corporation than a conventional brand from a big corporation. But you should be aware of your choices and consider what the label means... and, too often, federal rules and regulations are constructed with loopholes in mind for the wealthy.
For example, I have read that under the current USDA organic regulations, up to 5 percent of a product’s ingredients do not need to be organic at all. This includes spices, colorings, and flavorings that may or may not be available organically. For those concerned for the welfare of animals, while the USDA requires access to the outdoors, that has not stopped factory farms from meeting the very minimum standards for cranking out organic products.
With the organic food market continuing to boom, big corporations have gobbled up many of the smaller, more successful organic brands and made them their own, further confusing the issue for consumers. Public advocacy groups have identified many of the organic rule-stretchers and encouraged boycotts of popular brands including Horizon, Aurora, Silk and White Wave. 
I think that it is very important to note here that many smaller farms do not have the resources to even go through the USDA certification process. Although their farming practices may be more organic and more sustainable than corporate farms, they just don’t have the time or money to spare. So, I would encourage everyone to consider local, family farms to be as good as organic, even if they don’t have the official label. 
If you don’t like taking that for granted, then take the time to talk to the local farm owners at a farmer’s market and ask them about their farming practices. You’ll likely find that they care deeply for the land and the animals; their practices are sustainable because they know that their long-term livelihoods depend on it. They don’t cut too many corners or stretch the truth about their practices because they know that they need to grow relationships with their community to stay in business.
Unfortunately, we really have no idea what organic means to other countries without certification labels. Google tells me that Quality Assurance International ( offers some labeling of international foods, but, personally, I have not noticed that one in any of the places that I shop.
I would strongly suggest that you do not take my word for any of this. If you are indeed concerned about what it means to be “certified this” or “certified that”, then take the time to look at the label and research for yourself.