In short, if a product is organic, that means it was produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or other artificial agents.
More specifically, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing various factors, including soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control and the use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.
According to the USDA, produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment.
In other words, just because something is labeled “organic” does not mean that no pesticides or herbicides were used. Rather, it means that the ones applied met the USDA’s production standards for the term.
As for organic meat, regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage and not administered antibiotics or hormones.
Processed, multi-ingredient foods cannot containing artificial preservatives, colors or flavors to be considered organic. Regulations also require that their ingredients are organic, with some minor exceptions. For example, processed organic foods may contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients, like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods.
When packaged products indicate they are made with a specific ingredient or food group that’s organic, this means they contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in 100% organic products.
“Made with organic” products don’t have a USDA organic seal, but they must still identify the USDA-accredited certifier. As with all organic foods, none of it can be grown or handled using genetically modified organisms.
It’s also worth noting that foods can still be organic even if they’re not labeled as such. Because the standard requires third-party verification, there’s a cost associated with the certification process. Food companies must consistently provide back-up documentation in order to use the “USDA Organic” seal, so some brands may use organic production practices but don’t want to incur the costs of verification.