USDA announces new proposal for national organic standards

provided by the United States Department of Agriculture


griculture Secretary Dan Glickman has announced a new proposal for uniform and consistent national standards for organic food. "This is the most comprehensive and strongest organic standard in the world," said Glickman. "I believe that is exactly what American consumers and organic farmers want."

Essentially, the proposal offers a national definition for the term "organic." Currently, organic food is certified by various private and state organizations that each use their own standards for the term "organic."

"A single national organic standard, backed by consistent and accurate labeling, will greatly reduce consumer confusion," said Glickman. "Consumers will know what they are buying and organic farmers will know what is expected of them."

The proposal details the methods, practices, and substances that can be used in producing and handling organic crops and livestock, as well as processed products. It establishes clear labeling criteria and rules so that consumers know exactly what they are buying when they purchase organic food. It specifically prohibits the use of genetic engineering, sewage sludge, and irradiation in the production of food products labeled "organic." The proposal also prohibits antibiotics in organic livestock production and requires 100 percent organic feed for organic livestock.

USDA's proposal will allow organic farmers to export their products more easily because trading partners can more easily deal with one national standard rather than multiple state and private standards.

The revised proposal is the result of careful analysis of more than 275,000 comments USDA received in response to its initial December 1997 organic proposal.

The Organic Foods Production Act and the National Organic Program (NOP) are intended to assure consumers that the organic foods they purchase are produced, processed, and certified to consistent national organic standards. The labeling requirements of the new program apply to raw, fresh produce and processed foods that contain organic ingredients. Foods that are sold, labeled, or represented as organic will have to be produced and processed in accordance with the proposed National Organic Program standards.

Under the NOP, farm and processing operations that grow and process organic foods must be certified by USDA-accredited certifying agents. A certified operation may label its products or ingredients as organic and may use the "USDA Certified Organic" seal.

Labeling requirements are based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product.


Foods labeled 100 percent organic and organic


Products labeled as "100 percent organic" must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced raw or processed products.

Products labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances or non-organically produced agricultural products approved in the National List.

Products meeting the requirements to be labeled "100 percent organic" and "organic" may display these terms on their principal display panel.

The USDA seal and the seal or mark of involved certifying agents may appear on product packages and in advertisements.


Processed products labeled "made with organic (specified ingredients)"


Products that contain 50-95 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic (specified ingredients)" and list up to three of the organic ingredients on the principal display panel. For example organic beef stew can be labeled stew, "made with organic beef, potatoes, and carrots."

The certifying agent seal or mark may be used on the package. However, the USDA seal cannot be used anywhere on the package.


Processed products that contain less than 50 percent organic ingredients


These products cannot make any organic labeling claim other than on the information panel, and in doing so, designate specific ingredients that are organically produced.


Other labeling provisions


The package information panel of any product labeled as organic must state the actual percentage of organic ingredients and use the word "organic" to modify each organically produced ingredient.

The name and address of the certifying agent of the final product must be displayed on the information panel.

There are no restrictions on use of truthful labeling claims such as "pesticide free," "no drugs or growth hormones used," or "sustainably harvested."


Penalties for misuse of labels

A civil penalty of up to $10,000 can be levied on any person who knowingly sells or labels as organic a product that is not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program's regulations.

After the new regulations are finalized, organic farmers and handlers will be given a sufficient period of time to adjust their growing and processing operations and revise their labels to conform to the new standards.

Glickman also announced several other steps the Administration is taking to promote organic agriculture. President Clinton's fiscal 2001 budget proposes $5 million for research to develop improved organic production and processing methods, evaluate economic benefits to farmers, and develop new organic markets. Glickman said USDA will establish a pilot organic crop insurance program to help organic farmers better manage risk. He also announced that USDA and the University of California at Davis will conduct research on organic production and ways to enhance farmers' ability to market organic fruits and vegetables.

USDA estimates that the value of retail sales of organic foods in 1999 was approximately $6 billion. The number of organic farmers is increasing about 12 percent per year and now stands at about 12,200 nationwide, most of them small-scale producers.

Fact sheets and other background materials on the proposed organic rule can be accessed on the web at