Learn How to Tell When 'Organic' on a Label Is True

Various fruit, veggies and meats on a table
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You're probably familiar with seeing the term "organic" on products ranging from T-shirts to garden soil to soap. The word (and process) has become so popular, cities abound even with organic dry cleaners. The question becomes, "When is organic not really organic, and how can the consumer tell the difference between the two?"

In the most basic of definitions, "organic" means, “relating to, or derived from living organisms.” However, in the United States, "organic" has come to mean many different things.

The Term 'Organic' Is Not Always Well-Defined

The term "organic" is currently used to describe various sustainable agricultural and food items, textiles, toys, furniture, mattresses, cosmetics, beverages, bath and body care products, and many other products. The term "organic" is also used descriptively for an action. For example, "I try to live organically" or "Organic farming is better for the planet."

In many cases, "organic" is used inappropriately. Organic body care products are a shining example of how the term can be used incorrectly. For instance, calling a shampoo organic when it contains harmful chemicals that are normally not allowed in organic agricultural products is misleading advertising. As a consumer, if you are concerned about the use of chemicals and pesticides in the products and foods you buy, you should always check the ingredients. If the ingredients are not listed on the packaging, you should visit the seller's website where you can either find or request the ingredients.

How to Identify Truly Organic Products

The official term for organics that meet USDA organic standards is "certified organic," also sometimes called "USDA-certified organic." An organic product in the United States is always considered truly organic when the following conditions are met:

The USDA's official organic seal is green and white, and some manufacturers and producers use a very similar, though different colored, seal. Such mislabeling can result in fines of up to $11,000 per violation. Also, a product does not have to contain 95 percent organic ingredients to be truly beneficial. The USDA allows those products with at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients to use the words "made with organic ingredients."  However, those products cannot carry the green-and-white USDA seal.

How to Know If Your Fruits and Vegetables Are Organic

If you're like most people, you buy fruits and vegetables for health reasons, and here's where accurate labeling is key. If you want to know if the product you're purchasing is truly organic, look at the Price Look Up (PLU) sticker. If the produce is organic, the code will contain five-digits beginning with the number 9. Nonorganic counterparts will have four digits. For example, organically grown bananas will be 94011, compared to 4011 for those treated with chemicals and pesticides. A five-digit PLU beginning with the number 8 means the item is genetically modified, which some research indicates may pose health risks

Shopping at the Farmers' Market

At farmers' stands and markets, where organics may cost less because of low shipping costs and no middlemen, it can be hard to know what you're getting—especially because these products lack the PLU stickers. Under the USDA's National Organic Program, farmers who market their products as organic are supposed to have their wares certified by a USDA-accredited agent, or face fines if they get caught. If the product is being touted as certified, you can ask to see a copy of the organic certification paperwork.

Vendors are supposed to have it on hand whenever selling their wares. 

Exception: Not All Real Organics Are Certified

When growers use sustainable growing methods but choose not to get certified—or they are exempt from certification because they sell less than $5,000 worth of organic products annually—it doesn't mean the farmer's products aren't organically grown and produced.

For example, an organic blueberry farm may not be officially certified, but may in fact truly grow organic blueberries. This is a tricky exception because it relies on consumer knowledge of sustainable growing methods. That said, due to the organic craze, those adhering to strict organic standards will likely let the public know how their produce was grown by stating the process on their website or other marketing material. 

Exception: Some Organics Are Not Certified Correctly

To make the issue of real organics even trickier, some accredited certifying agents, along with the USDA, have come under fire for certifying products as organic when the product doesn't always follow USDA standards for organic certification. For example, a 2010 USDA Inspector General report found that the enforcement of federal laws governing organics is abysmal.

Poor certification standards seriously confuse the organic issue, because if organic consumers and the organic industry can't trust the USDA Organic Seal or certifying agents, then they'll have trouble trusting the integrity of the organic industry altogether. For this reason, integrity among organic growers and producers is so important and why it's incumbent upon you as a consumer to get to know not just your labels but the people from whom you purchase your wares.