What's in a Label?A Look at Organic Certification and What it Means for Consumers and Farmers
For consumers looking at food labels, it can be difficult to understand them and know what the claims mean and if they’ve been verified or are regulated. One label that consumers can feel confident about is one which is “organic certified.”
When a label has the “UDSA Organic” logo on the packaging, it means that the contents were grown and processed according to federal guidelines related to soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control and use of additives. According to USDA.gov, “organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical or biologically-based farming methods to the fullest extent possible. Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest.”
When a consumer sees that label, it ensures that the requirements of organic standard have been met and verified by a third-party certifier, which is accredited to certify by the USDA, said Julie Barton, Sustainable Agriculture Educator with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
“Certification is an annual process and annual fees cover the cost of the certification service,” said Barton. “There is a cost share reimbursement program funded through the Farm Bill to help offset the cost of certification.”
Once certification has been earned, it is maintained through annual re-certification. “The operation needs to annually put together, submit to a certification agency and get inspected on their OSP (organic systems plan), which describes all aspects of their operation and how the operation complies with the organic standards,” said Jeff Heinsohn, a partner at Walnut Grove Farms in Kirkland, Illinois who grows both non-organic and organic crops. This is his ninth year of organic certification growing corn, soybeans, wheat and sunflowers.
“From a practical on-farm view the difference between non-organic and organic products is the way they are produced and the tools the farmer can use to manage the crops. Organic producers are limited to the only organic approved products and have to employ a system and practices that comply with the national organic standards requirements,” Heinsohn explained. “Non-organic crops do not have to certify their practices like organic producers and have a lot more options to manage their crop as they best see fit.”
For farmers like Heinsohn, who grow both organic and non-organic products there are advantages and disadvantages to each way of growing. “When an organic system is implemented well and the weather cooperates, it is exciting to see the quality and quantity that can be produced and the farmer can be rewarded for that, but it takes I’d say five times more work by the farmer to get there and at higher risk,” he explained. “Non-organic crops have the advantage of having more tools available to manage fertility, pest and other challenges faced by a crop. Therefore, it is more consistent in its results.”
To learn more about organic certification, visit usda.gov.
Carrie Steinweg is a freelance writer, author, blogger and photographer living in Chicago’s south suburbs with her husband and five sons. Her work has appeared in dozens of print and online publications, and she is the author of seven books. A passionate foodie, Carrie thoroughly enjoys traveling and visiting new restaurants and craft breweries, attending food festivals and trying out new recipes and kitchen gadgets. She writes about her food experiences at ChicagoFoodieSisters.com.