When it comes to food safety regulations, it can be a dizzying array of virtual alphabet soup. The FDA, FSA, USDA, FSMA, NPIP, USP, and ISO are some examples of what might surface when you swirl your spoon in the bowl of regulatory milieu.
With a U.S. retail market for organic foods at $35 billion and growing, awareness for the production and safety of organic food products are at the front of consumers’ minds1. In the U.S., the regulatory agency that is chiefly involved in certifying food products as organic is the USDA and their various departments. October 2012 marked the 10th anniversary of the USDA Organic Seal, which has served as the certifying mark and a global leader since its inception1.
What does “Certified Organic” mean? What parts of the food chain does this cover?
The National Organic Program (NOP) was created by the USDA to describe the specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled USDA organic. Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances2. The USDA organic seal serves three main functions. Certain requirements must be met for organic crops, organic livestock, and foods made from multiple organic sources. For organic crops, the USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used. For organic livestock, the USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors. Where foods made with multiple organic ingredients are concerned, USDA organic seal verifies that the product has 95% or more certified organic content. If the label claims that it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure that those specific ingredients are certified organic2. The official USDA organic seal is shown below.
Figure 1. Official Certified Organic seal of the USDA.
What is the regulatory process like?
The NOP develops the laws that regulate the creation, production, handling, labeling, trade, and enforcement of all USDA organic products. This process, commonly referred to as rulemaking, involves input from the National Organic Standards Board (a Federal Advisory Committee made up of 15 members of the public) and the rest of the general public. 7 CFR Section 205 includes all USDA organic standards, including prohibited practices, requirements, and the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Materials2.
Safety and Nutrition of Organics
A study conducted by scientists at Stanford University questioned whether purchasing certified organic food at a higher price was really worth the premium. When looking at the nutritional value that certified organic foods have to offer, the study ultimately concluded that there is a lack of strong evidence to support the perception that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional alternatives3. As far as safety is concerned, both organic and conventional animal products have repeatedly been shown to be widely contaminated with harmful pathogens. The study found that the differences in contamination between organic and conventional products were statistically insignificant. The one major difference the study found was that conventional animal products were more likely to be contaminated with pathogens that were resistant to three or more antibiotics. For chicken and pork, conventional samples were 33 percent more at risk. Despite these differences, the study found these differences to be statistically insignificant. The reviewers also noted that few of the studies they looked at analyzed the same antibiotics on the same animal product3.
However, there is also research to support the idea that organics indeed offer nutritional and safety advantages over conventionally produced foods. The Organic Trade Association (OTA), a North American membership-based business association for the organic industry, states that, “There is mounting evidence that organically grown fruits, vegetables and grains may offer more of some nutrients, including vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, and less exposure to nitrates and pesticide residues than their counterparts grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.” Their website, aptly named “organicitsworthit.org”, cites nearly 20 different research studies that support this view4.
While research offers different viewpoints on the safety and nutrition of organic food, there is a common thread found throughout. No matter which view studies advocate, nearly all call for more research and data in order to draw reliable conclusions.
Additional Consumer Factors
So, other than beliefs about the safety and nutritional benefits of organics, why would consumers choose to pay more for certified organic foods? The certified organic mark limits the type and amount of chemicals that come into contact with the agriculture or livestock before it is processed for food, something that is important to organic consumers. Other organic supporters believe organic food is more responsibly produced through the humane treatment of livestock. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. For example, instead of using chemical fertilizers, organic farmers might use natural fertilizers such as compost5. The USDA has increased spending to support organic agriculture with each of the Farm Acts passed since 20026. The figure below shows the increase in spending by the USDA with each Farm Act. With the support of the USDA, the organic food sector will continue to grow well into the future.
Figure 2. Mandatory spending on organic agriculture by the USDA with each Farm Act from 2002-2012.
Do you purchase certified organic foods? What are your reasons for choosing to purchase/not purchase them? Please feel free to leave us comments on this topic; we would love to hear from you!
- “Organic Agriculture.” U.S. Department of Agriculture. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=organic-agriculture>.
- “Agricultural Marketing Service – Home.” Agricultural Marketing Service – Home. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/NOPOrganicStandards>.
- Bottemiller, Helena. “Food Safety News.” Food Safety News. 5 Sept. 2012. Web. 01 Apr. 2014. <http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/09/organic-food-not-proven-healthier-or-safer-study-finds/#.UzrMX6hdUhc>.
- “Nutritional Considerations.” The Organic Trade Assocation. Web. 12 June 2014. <http://www.ota.com/organic/benefits/nutrition.html>
- “Nutrition and Healthy Eating.” Organic Foods: Are They Safer? More Nutritious? Mayo Clinic. Web. 01 June 2014. <http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880>.
- USDA ERS – Agricultural Act of 2014: Highlights and Implications: Organic Agriculture.” USDA ERS – Agricultural Act of 2014: Highlights and Implications: Organic Agriculture. USDA Economic Research Service. Web. 02 June 2014. http://www.ers.usda.gov/agricultural-act-of-2014-highlights-and-implications/organic-agriculture.aspx.