The Organic Choice: More than a Label

The Organic Choice

Organic goes mainstream…but what does it mean for consumers?

Jim Bingen, Ph.D. | Professor, Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies | Michigan State University

Since the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that consumer demand for organic products has been growing about 20% or more per year.1 Accounting for $10 billion in sales, organic is no longer a niche or health food market. In 2003, supermarkets and grocery stores handled over 40% of total organic food sales. This includes large discount chains like Wal-Mart and Costco where organic food sales jumped from just 1% of total sales in 1999 to almost 15% by 2000.

According to recent consumer surveys, well over 50% of those buying organic believe that organically grown food is better for the environment and better for their health.2 Such perceptions and the phenomenal growth in the market for organic products have generated considerable controversy over the benefits of organic food. Despite the widespread perception that "organic is healthier," the Organic Trade Association—the leading group promoting the organic industry—specifically does not make a health claim for organic.

So what does organic really mean? Is there any true difference between conventional foods and those labeled organic? How are we to decipher the myriad of related labels, and make the right choices for children?

What is Organic?
Organic is not an end product in itself, but rather refers to the way food and fiber (e.g. cotton) is grown, processed and handled. Organic farmers boost soil fertility by enhancing biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. In other words, they "feed the soil, not the plant." 

Put simply, organic farmers 1) manage pests and weeds without synthetic pesticides, 2) do not use synthetic fertilizers, and 3) do not use genetically engineered crops. 

Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products must come from animals that have free access to the outdoors, are fed only organic feed and receive no antibiotics or growth hormones. Those who process, handle, ship and sell organic food must maintain the integrity of these products without the use of artificial ingredients, preservatives or irradiation.

What's the Law?
In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), authorizing the USDA to develop a set of national standards assuring that only food grown, processed and handled according to these standards could be labeled as organic. Under this Act, a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was established—consisting of 15 people representing organic farmers, consumers, processors, and retailers—to assist in development of the standards. 

To assure compliance, the USDA created a National Organic Program (NOP) office in October 2002. The NOP assures that all food labeled as organic comes from farms or processors certified by a USDA-accredited agent and is consistent with the provisions of the National Organic Program. There are 56 U.S. private organizations or state government agencies, and 41 foreign groups that are "USDA-accredited certifying agents." If a farmer or processor wants to sell food as organic, the growing or handling practices must be certified by one of these certifying agents.

What Does It Mean to be Certified?
Any farm or operation that produces or handles 
agricultural products intended for sale as "100% organic," "organic," or "made with organic ingredients" must be certified. To achieve certification and to maintain that certification during annual audits, farms must show compliance with the following.

Farming Practices. All farms must document that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides have been used for the previous three years. In addition, farms must identify the organic crops grown or animals raised, as well as submit an organic plan that describes the farming practices and the monitoring that will verify effective implementation of the plan.

Animal Husbandry. Organic farmers are required to give animals and poultry "free access" to the outdoors. What this means in practice is currently very controversial. Some, usually very large-scale operations, argue that access to any outside environment—even just a view of the outdoors—is sufficient to meet the standard. On the other hand, a large number of farmers argue the standard means free range methods that allow poultry to roam and animals to graze on open pasture. 

Handling. Food processors and distributors must identify the products to be processed or handled and describe how their practices prevent co-mingling of organic and non-organic products including contact with products that have prohibited substances. 

Inspection. At the request of the farmer or processor, an inspector from a certifying agent schedules an on-site visit. He observes the practices used to produce or handle organic products and speaks with someone knowledgeable about the operation. If all is in compliance with the national organic standards, he issues an organic certificate that remains in effect until terminated voluntarily or lost because of non-compliance. During annual inspections producers are required to present updated information to the inspector. Unannounced inspections or pesticide and residue tests may take place at any time to enforce regulations and maintain the integrity of organic certification.. 

Deciphering Labels
The differences among the types of organic labeling remind us now more than ever of the need to be informed. As we've grown to take our food for granted, we have become unaware of where it comes from, who grew it and under what conditions; we have only a limited understanding of what technologies were used for harvesting, or what chemicals were used for processing or extending the shelf life. There is virtually nothing that tells about the resources used or the waste created on the long trip from farm to fork. 

The less we know, the less we are able to make conscious decisions about the health of our families and the health of the earth. Consumers now have more organic food products to buy—from breakfast cereal to boneless chicken breasts, gluten-free skinless frankfurters, gourmet chicken brats, beef, fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk and other dairy products, and a wide variety of snack foods.4 We can increase our ability to make informed choices by becoming more familiar with the variety of organic-related labeling. Following is an overview of the labeling one is likely to encounter when shopping for organics.

USDA Certified Organic. All fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, dairy products and snack foods that are "certified" are allowed to carry the "USDA Organic" label. There are four types of labeling for all organic food:

  1. Certified with 100% organic ingredients: may carry the USDA Organic Seal and the statement "100% Organic" on the front of the package.
  2. Certified with 95-100% organic ingredients: may carry the USDA Organic Seal on the front of the package.
  3. Contains at least 70% organic ingredients: may list the organic ingredients on the front of the package, but may not use the USDA Organic Seal. 
  4. Contains less than 70% organic ingredients: may list the specific organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but no organic claims are allowed on the front panel, and the USDA Organic Seal is not allowed.


The name and address (usually a logo) of the government-approved certifier must be on all packaged products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. There is one important exception that primarily affects consumers who shop in farmers' markets or who purchase produce directly from a stand on a farm: If a farm or processor sells less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products, it is exempt from certification. However, consistent with the national organic standards, it may still identify its food as organic.

Other Organic-Related Labels
Free range. A second label consumers will often see on packaging is "free range, grass-fed or pasture-raised." This is not a certified organic label. It only indicates that the farmer has followed pasture-based practices. This commonly means that he did not use growth hormones or low-grade antibiotics. In short, many farmers employ pasture-based methods but for various reasons choose not to become certified organic. Research is under way to document how these practices contribute to elevated levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid in grass-fed animals.

Natural. Beware the "natural" claim. While this term is found on many products, it has no statutory definition. Products with this "label" might stress the absence of artificial ingredients, but without reference to the growing practices or type of processing used. Many of these products often involve treatments to extend shelf life and "fresh-like" qualities.

FairTrade. This label is often seen together with the organic. However, it's not equivalent to organic. The FairTrade label certifies that agricultural products meet the labor/worker health and trading standards set by the members of the FairTrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO). It assures that agricultural workers receive fair wages, have decent housing and healthy working conditions, and are allowed to join unions. Plantations must assure minimum health, safety and environmental standards, and guarantee the absence of child or forced labor. Trading standards help assure that the trade offers prices that cover the costs of sustainable production and living, includes a "premium" that small growers can use to invest, and are based on a contract that allows growers to plan for the long-term and engage in sustainable production practices.

As the foremost international organic accreditation agency, IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) is leading discussions on ways to incorporate social justice concerns into organic certification. This includes a Code of Conduct for Organic Trade that offers a list of eight principles covering transparency and accountability in negotiations, equitable distribution of returns, skills development, and capacity building.

The Benefits of Organic—Claims and Controversies
What follows is a selection detailing some of the recent evidence of the benefits of organic along with some counter claims or challenges. In part, resolving these controversies requires an understanding of the evidence brought to bear in support of each position. More importantly, dealing with these issues requires a critical self-awareness of the values we want to promote when we buy food. Just as we have become more "environmentally aware" in many of our purchases and actions over the last 30 years, the increased availability of organic food now challenges us to become more aware of the values embedded in our food and farming systems. 

Environmental Benefits
A growing number of studies document the ways in which organic farming boosts biodiversity and provides other environmental benefits such as increasing soil bacteria, the number of earthworms and the enhancement of habitats for wildlife and birds. Research at The Rodale Institute shows that organic farming practices reduce agricultural water pollution by up to 75 percent, improve quality in surface and ground waters, and benefit water quality in downstream marine environments.8

In a paper presented at the First World Congress on Organic Food in March 2004, Kirsten Brandt and Carlo Leifert from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne reported that organic crops are more resistant to diseases and pests than corresponding conventional ones—to an extent, that more than makes up for the protective effects of synthetic pesticides. Current evidence suggests that organically produced plants contain a higher level of natural defense compounds, or secondary metabolites.9

However, there are challenges to these claims. While acknowledging the environmental evidence, many argue that plowing as one means to control weeds may increase soil erosion, and that organic production requires too much land for increasingly land-scarce areas. Others argue that some of the approved non-synthetic pest control products (e.g., rotenone) are toxic to many soil organisms, and assert that just as the secondary metabolites may protect plants, these "natural pesticides" are also dangerous to human health.

Animal Health and Welfare
Organic standards are based on the assumption that good animal husbandry practices contribute directly to animal health and well-being. Some of these practices include low stocking rates, access to the outdoors, free-range and pasture-based grazing, and the very restricted use of antibiotics in the event of disease. Animal health is based on prevention, not cure, and good husbandry and high standards of welfare ensure that animals are less susceptible to disease.10

A politically conservative group, The Center for Global Food Issues (associated with the Hudson Institute), takes a significantly different approach with its Earth-Friendly/Farm Friendly certification program, based "solely on science-proven methods that help farmers produce more while using less." In direct contrast to the principles of free-range animal husbandry, the principle of the Earth-Friendly approach is to "generate higher yields while conserving more land and resources for nature." From this perspective, "confinement production of meat, milk and eggs has saved additional millions of square miles of wildlands with lower death rates, higher feed conversion rates, and very small amounts of land needed per bird or animal" (see

Food Safety 
Two sets of issues dominate the current debate over the safety of organic food: pesticide use and residues, and microbiological contamination.

Pesticides. No synthetic pesticides are allowed in organic agriculture. The minimal pesticide residues that have been found on organic produce can be attributed to pesticide drift from conventionally grown crops. At the First World Congress on Organic Food, the "Sense of the Congress" on pesticide issues was that the "adoption of organic farming...offers...opportunities to reduce exposure to pesticides in the diet... Generally, there is no compelling evidence supporting the need for further dietary risk assessment for pesticides that are currently used and approved for organic farming."11

According to Charles Benbrook, Chief Scientist with the Organic Center for Education and Promotion, "The current state of science continues 
to indicate that eating organic foods can support healthy development in young children and also lower the frequency of some health and reproductive problems that tend to strike later in life. Because such a small number of foods accounts for most pesticide dietary exposure, selecting organic produce can provide a significant public health benefit."12

Those who challenge this advice do so from the position that all pesticides used by conventional food producers are thoroughly tested for risks to health. Based on these tests, if indications of risks are found, these pesticides are not allowed. Consequently, the levels of residues on conventional food are not considered a health risk.

While food is not the only source of exposure to the more than one billion pounds of pesticides used annually in the United States, pesticide residues are a part of most meals. Based on testing by the USDA Pesticide Data Program, almost 80% of the conventionally grown fresh fruits tested contained one or more pesticide residues. Of concern are a few conventional fruits and vegetables frequently consumed by infants and children that stand out as the most heavily contaminated. Consequently, it is especially significant for women of childbearing age, infants and children to eat fruits and vegetables produced in a low-pesticide environment.13

Microbiological Contamination. The "Sense of the Congress" at the First World Congress on Organic Food offers an overview of the complex issues in this area. The Congress acknowledged that there are "significant and constantly evolving challenges" to both farmers and the food production system in "preventing the microbiological contamination of food with enteric pathogens." There is little evidence to implicate organic fruits and vegetables as sources of enteric illness, but this may "reflect limited epidemiological data."

According to the national organic standards, proper composting "reduces the likelihood of enteric pathogens being transmitted to humans or in fruits and vegetables in the organic farming system." Furthermore, it appears that the greater biodiversity that occurs in organic systems, especially through soil improvement, lowers the "likelihood of establishment of food-borne enteric pathogens or plant pathogens."14

Nutritional Benefits
Though scientists have some evidence that organic foods can contain higher levels of certain nutrients, differences in food value are often difficult to determine. Brandt and Liefert summarize the "state of the science" surrounding claims for the nutritional benefits of organic food compared to food produced by conventional practices: "[W]e have very little specific knowledge about what it is in food that is actually good or bad for health."15For example, we know it is good to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, but we don't know if apples are better than carrots, or if fresh carrots are better than cooked carrots. But this is not to say that all foods are equal. The point is that differences in value are difficult to determine.

Another problem in dealing with this question relates to the issue of scientific research design. To compare the contribution of different methods of farming on differences in the effects of food on health, it is necessary to measure at least one other factor—in addition to the organic diet—known to be directly related to the health of those eating the food. The results of even the limited number of these studies have not been definitive.

Nevertheless, an increasing number of studies provide evidence of some health benefits associated with organic food. A recent report from the Organic Center for Education and Promotion concludes that organic farming methods have the potential to elevate average antioxidant levels, especially in fresh produce. On average, antioxidant levels were about 30% higher in organic food compared to conventional food grown under the same conditions.16

Catsup counts too! A team of USDA researchers recently reported finding that the average level of lycopene (a known antioxidant) in the organic brands of catsup was 57% higher than the national brands and 55% higher than store brands.

Another recent study documents the degree of nutrient decline from 1950 to 1999 in 43 conventionally grown garden crops. The nutrients that showed statistically significant declines (from 6% to 38%) were: protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, riboflavin, and ascorbic acid. The researchers attribute this decline in nutrient density in part to the "dilution effect" of plant breeding based largely on increasing yield as the dominant selection criteria for new varieties. Other possible explanations for the decline include the gradual depletion of soil micronutrients and organic matter with conventional farming.17

Organic Milk: Preliminary results from research in Scotland confirm that organic milk is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Organic milk can contain up to 71% more omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic milk, and has a better ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids than conventional milk. Another study in Denmark found that organic milk samples generally contained significantly more vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) and higher concentrations of carotenoids. Researchers credited the higher concentrations of vitamin E and carotenoids in organic milk to feeding differences between conventional and organic production based on grass-based diets.18

Snacks: According to a recent headline in USA Today, organic snack foods are "hot." The report indicates that sales of organic chips, nuts, nutrition bars and candy jumped by almost 30% in 2003 and 120 organic snacks were scheduled for introduction during 2004.19 In 1996 Joan Dye Gussow asked "can an organic Twinkie be certified?" It would appear so. Just because it's organic, does this mean it's good for you?

Behind the Label: Current Policy Concerns
The appearance of the USDA Organic Seal in late 2002 represented the results of a 20-year struggle by groups of farmers, environmentalists and consumers to make organic legitimate in the marketplace. But the seal also embodies controversies, concerns and the need for continued citizen vigilance to maintain an organic standard. Following are some cases that help to illustrate the point.

Contrary to the recommendation of the National Organic Standards Board, and under pressure from corporate farms, in 1997 the USDA issued a watered down set of draft organic standards that would have permitted the use of genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge in the production of organic foods. These draft standards were quickly withdrawn after the USDA received over 275,000 responses to this effort—the largest public outpouring to the USDA on any food issue. 

Shortly after the standards were issued in October 2002, Fieldale Farms in Georgia successfully inserted a clause into a congressional spending bill diluting the 100% organic feed requirement for organic chicken production. It took special congressional action—again in response to some especially vigilant groups—to excise this measure from the appropriations bill and protect the integrity of the organic standards.

Since 2002, United Egg Producers—representing industrial-style egg producers—has sought to overturn the requirement that organic chickens have access to the outdoors, and in 2004 the USDA overturned a Massachusetts certifier's refusal to certify a poultry operation that did not meet the national organic program requirements for outdoor access. 

In April 2004 the USDA issued directives to reverse a two-year-old policy to allow organic standards for seafood, pet food, personal care, and soil amendment products to be established without giving any public notice or seeking any formal public comment. After serious public criticism of the process followed in making this decision, the Secretary of Agriculture rescinded the directives, yet held that they still represent the Agency's "best legal thinking." 

In 2003, a 72-year-old organic blueberry farmer and certification inspector from Maine sued the USDA for weakening and diluting the organic standards in seven ways that were inconsistent with the Organic Food Production Act. In late January 2005, the First Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with three of the farmer's challenges and confirmed that no synthetics are allowed in processed organic food, that dairy animals must be fed organically produced feed for not less than 12 months prior to sale, and that all non-organic agricultural products must be reviewed in order to be used in processed foods.

More recently, several complaints have been filed concerning the lack of pasture for 5,700 cows on a large certified organic dairy farm in Colorado. At issue is the legality of confining cows without access to pasture, yet labeling milk and other dairy products as organic. This has become a critical issue, especially as investors have built large industrial dairy operations to meet the skyrocketing demand for organic milk. 

Finally, in a clear victory for transparency, a federal district court judge ruled that the USDA must provide the Center for Food Safety access to documents detailing the qualifications and background of all USDA-accredited certifiers. This is an especially significant decision since the label is only as good as the certifying agents that enforce the organic standards. And this decision finally makes possible a public review of the USDA's accreditation process. Given the unexpectedly large number of certifying agents that applied and have been approved, questions have been raised for some time about the rigorousness of the USDA review process and whether it could prevent manipulation and the possible entry of "sham" certifiers into the program.20 Despite this important victory, accredited foreign certifying agents have never received an on-site visit by anyone from, or representing, USDA.

In short, the protection of the integrity of the organic standard requires continuing vigilance. 

The Challenge of Organic
The evidence cited at the beginning of this article illustrates how organic is now mainstream—it has quickly become another corporate success story. Few would disagree that "more organic" also means that more land is being cultivated with ecologically sound practices. However, does mass-marketed organic allow consumers to feel absolved of any need to think critically about our food and farming systems? How can the commercial success of organics be expanded without compromising the values that gave it birth?21

We now have "industrial organic," and as author Jim Hightower has asked, "[T]he question is no longer whether organic' will become the major force in the food economy, but rather what it means to say 'organic'—and who will control it...The label defines 'organic' merely as a technical process, rather than as a structural concept centered on the culture of agriculture."22

The current controversies surrounding the implementation and enforcement of national standards should encourage and embolden us to begin thinking differently about food and our relationships to food and farming. There is no substitute for knowing where our food comes from, who grows it and under what conditions. Only through such knowledge can we make truly informed decisions for ourselves and our children. In addition, though we are not likely to dismantle our industrialized system of food production and distribution, there is an opportunity to increase not only our choices, but also our food security through the revitalization of local food and farming systems.

Jim Bingen is a Professor of Community, Food and Agricultural Systems at Michigan State University. He has been working on issues related to organic and community-based agriculture in Michigan for over 10 years. He is currently involved in a program supporting Michigan farmers' markets, research on organic certification and the development of a socio-ecological and spatial policy analysis of rural change in Michigan. Dr. Bingen is on the Board of the Michigan Organic Food & Farm Alliance (MOFFA) and on the Council of Michigan Integrated Food & Farming Systems (MIFFS).


  1. Greene, C. and C. Dimitri. 2004. "Organic Agriculture: Gaining Ground." Amber Waves 1.
  3. Organic Trade Association. "Organic Food Facts." January 3, 2005.
  4. Organic Trade Association. "The OTA 2004 Manufacturer Survey Overview." Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, MA.
  5. The Hartman Group, Organic Food & Beverage Trends 2004: Lifestyles, Language and Category Adoption, August 2004. (
  6. Whole Foods Market® Organic Foods Trend Tracker 2004 survey, October 2004. (
  7. Organic Valley Family of Farms, Food and Farming 2004 ( (
  9. Brandt, K. and C. Leifert. 2004. "European Views and Initiatives Regarding Safety and Quality of Organic Food." in First World Congress on Organic Food: Meeting the Challenges of Safety and Quality for Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains. East Lansing, Mi.
  10. The Soil Association. 2001. "Myth and Reality. Organic vs. Non-Organic: The Facts." The Soil Association, Bristol, UK.
  11. National Food Safety & Toxicology Center. Proceedings. First World Congress on Organic Food: Meeting the Challenges of Safety and Quality for Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains. East Lansing, MI. March 29-31, 2004. Michigan State University.
  12. Benbrook, C. M. 2004. "Minimizing Pesticide Dietary Exposure Through Consumption of Organic Foods." The Organic Center for Education and Promotion, Greenfield, MA.
  13. Ibid.
  14. National Food Safety & Toxicology Center. Proceedings. First World Congress on Organic Food: Meeting the Challenges of Safety and Quality for Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains. East Lansing, MI. March 29-31, 2004. Michigan State University. 
  15. Brandt, K. and C. Leifert. 2004. "European Views and Initiatives Regarding Safety and Quality of Organic Food." in First World Congress on Organic Food: Meeting the Challenges of Safety and Quality for Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains. East Lansing, MI.
  17. Davis, D., M. Epp, and H. Riordan. 2004. "Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999." Journal of the American College of Nutrition 23. See
  18.; cited in
  22. Jim Hightower, The Hightower Lowdown, 4, 11: November 2002.
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