In layman's terms, "Organic" is a certification given by the USDA to foods that are produced without the use of banned substances, and in a manner that maintains an ecological balance. In order to understand what this means, we first need to consider the designations that the USDA categorizes organic food. Each category has its own rules regarding what makes it organic. Here are some of the key points to each category:
Crops- A plant that is grown to be harvested as food, livestock feed, fiber, or used to add nutrients to the field. To be certified as organic, it must be produced without the use of synthetic or sludge based fertilizers. The use of chemical pesticides is prohibited instead, baited insect traps or predatory insects and animals are frequently used to control unwanted insects. Lastly, the seedstock being used must be free of genetically modified seed.
Livestock - Animals, milk or eggs, that can be used for food or in the production of food, fiber, or feed. They must be raised in an environment free of antibiotic and hormone use. Fed a diet consisting of organic grass or feed, and given access to a pasture. The administration of approved medications generally have a "withdrawal period" prior to the animal being taken to slaughter, or milk used.
Processed Products - Items that have been handled and packaged (i.e. chopped carrots) or combined, processed, and packaged (i.e. soup). To be considered 100% organic, the ingredients used in the process must be from an organic certified source. However, in certain instances ingredients not certified as organic may be used, if they are on the USDA approved list (Items like baking powder and Carbon Dioxide).
Wild crops: Plants from a growing site that is not cultivated. The harvest of the crop must be from an area certified to be pesticide free for at least 3 years, and harvested in a way with minimal impact, and promote future growth of the area to be considered organic.
Of note, the USDA doesn't currently have a standard for organic fish, but when the standards of other countries are applied, "organic" fish is produced with food that is organic, and in a manner that maintains ecological sustainability.
There are other labels that can be applied to food that aren't necessarily regulated by the USDA
Cage Free: This label indicates that the bird is able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle. This label is a voluntary label.
Free Range: This label indicates that the bird is provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This label is regulated by the USDA.
All Natural: As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.
Pasture-raised. The USDA has not developed a labeling policy for pasture-raised products.
Humane. These labeling programs are not regulated by the USDA
For more information on the organic program and certification in the United States check out:
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