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What does it mean when food is organic?


Defining organic food

Organic food is grown following the USDA National Organic Program Standard. Organic farmers focus on leaving a better environment for the future. They use renewable resources and conserve soil and water quality.

Organic farmers don't use:


Recognizing an organic product

Look for the official "USDA Organic" seal on the food label. To earn this label, the producer has to be inspected by a government-approved certifier. They make sure the producer follows the required organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic foods have to be certified as well.

The "USDA Organic" seal also tells you that a product is 100% organic or made with at least 95% organic ingredients. Products with 70-94% organic ingredients cannot use the USDA Organic seal, but they can be labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients."


Pesticide residues on organic foods

There may be residue from pesticides used in organic food production, which include natural substances like plant oils and sulfur dust. Conventional foods may have residues of man-made pesticides that are used to protect crops from insects, weeds, and diseases. Organic foods typically carry a lower amount of pesticide residue than conventional foods.

Pesticide limits and testing in organic foods

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the maximum level of each pesticide that can be on each type of food. These levels are called tolerances. Most of the natural pesticides used in organic production are exempt from the requirement for a tolerance because they are so low in toxicity.

Trace amounts of man-made pesticides may get into organic foods. This might happen if an organic farmer's neighbor uses them, or if a processing plant handles both organic and non-organic foods. Since this contact may be unavoidable or inadvertent, USDA regulations allow residues of prohibited pesticides, up to 5 percent of the tolerance level.

For example, permethrin is a man-made pesticide that is used on non-organic peach trees.

USDA randomly tests products that display the USDA Organic seal to monitor compliance with the regulations, and to discourage mislabeling.

If you have questions about this, or any pesticide-related topic, please call NPIC at 1-800-858-7378 (8:00am - 12:00pm PST), or email us at npic@ace.orst.edu.

Last updated June 04, 2015

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