While we have discussed terminology and definitions in the past, today I thought we would revisit a this subject, add a few more, and go into greater depth. It is important to understand what the labels you read really say.
One of the big "hot buttons" in the Indie movement today is organic materials and ingredients. But do you know what organic really means? When a product is labeled as organic it generally means that it is meeting very specific legal standards. However, just what those standards are will vary, depending upon the country of origin, and some countries do not regulate it at all (though most do).
While the certification process does vary, all countries that regulate organic products set standards that control all aspects of the organic product. Each stage, every process, and all the various businesses that touch that product in any way have set standards that they must adhere too, in order for that product to maintain its organic status. This means that, from the seed stage all the way through to delivery to the consumer, whether a restaurant for consumption, or a grocery store for sale to the public, those standards must be kept.
As a general rule of thumb, in the USA and most other countries that regulate organic materials, organic, in relationship to food crops, means that the use of anything synthetic has been avoided. Chemicals, such as pesticides, antibiotics, fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms are not used. Here in the US it also means that the land used to raise the organic crops has been free of chemical use for at least three years, and that there is a physical separation between certified organic plants and the non-certified ones, in order to avoid contamination. The grower is also required to maintain accurate production records, process records, and sales records, and these must be available for Inspectors upon demand. Although Inspectors can, and do, show up unannounced, the needs often outweigh the resources, as with most government offices. Speaking of offices, it is the Department of Agriculture (USDA) that is responsible for setting and maintaining the standards for "organic" here in the USA. They have guidelines for three different levels of labeling of organic products.
#1. 100% Organic. These products must contain ingredients that are only organically produced, excluding any water or salt. The processing aids must also be all organic, and they cannot be produced using any excluded methods, sewage, sludge or ionizing radiation.
#2. Organic. These products must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients, again, excluding water and salt. Any remaining product ingredients must consist of non-agricultural substances that are approved on the National list, including specific non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form.
#3. Made with Organic Ingredients. These products are to contain at least 70% organic ingredients, and are allowed to list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principle display panel. Processed products labeled "made with organic ingredients" cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation. The percentage of organic content and the certifying agent seal or mark may be used on the principle display panel, however the USDA seal cannot be.
Any product that meets the requirements for either "100% Organic" or "Organic" is allowed to display the terms on their principle contact panel, as well as the USDA seal and the seal(s) of any other certifying agency on their packaging and in advertising.
So what does this mean to you as a consumer? Well, first off, while you always have legal recourse for false advertising, since "organic" is a regulated term, you have a far better legal leg to stand on. The majority of companies will not risk the wrath of the USDA, so their labeling is going to be accurate. It means that once you know the verbiage, you know exactly what is and is not in your product package. It means that you can feel confident in your product choices. That all being said, unfortunately, this certification process is quite costly and usually only the mega large corporations can afford to pay for the certification process. This does NOT mean though, that Indie businesses cannot follow all of the same principles and guidelines mandated for organic products, food safety and the agricultural processes, as well as all other applicable government guidelines. In then end though, they must label their products as "non-certified organic." Side by side, product to product, the quality should be the same, the only difference being that one paid for the right to use the term, "certified".
Any product that contains less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the term "organic" anywhere on the principle display panel. They can identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced on the ingredient information statement panel (read here, the back label, which us usually the directions/instructions/and fine print panel. I am not going to go into the fines that can be applied if a manufacturer fails to meet growing, distributing or labeling regulations, but suffice it to say that they can be quite substantial. Knowingly providing false label information is a crime and can be very costly.
Having said all of this, one major problem now days, is that there are some home grown businesses that do not have a clue about labeling laws, let alone how to comply with them, or what organic truly means. I know this may sound terrible, but it has always been buyer beware, so it is up to you to question the knowledge base of those you are trusting as experts.
Organic ingredients/materials cost more to produce (largely because of all the compliance issues), so it costs more to purchase products that utilize those organic ingredients. So another major problem is that this provides an opportunity for the unscrupulous to gouge the public. There will always be charlatans that say the magic word ("organic") simply to increase the greenbacks that they can charge.
It is important to remember that there is no regulation on the phrase "all natural," and that being made with organic ingredients does not ensure that there are no "bad for you" ingredients in that product. The FDA states that "natural" means that the product does not contain any synthetic ingredients, and they also have definitions for "healthy", but there are no restrictions on the use of other truthful labeling claims. Also, these words are often regulated more closely on food products. So "no drugs or growth hormones used", "free range" or "sustainably harvested" label phrasing on foods means nothing, and on other products, means even less.
I am not saying that everyone lies or all businesses are using key words simply to gouge you. But some are, some do. Actually, I believe that many, if not most labeling mistakes are made out of simple ignorance. So many of the cottage businesses popping up begin with Aunt Sue making something in her kitchen and then getting hooked on the hobby. Next thing you know, she is selling the product at craft shows to support her hobby costs. Unfortunately, she doesn't spend a lot of time on the legal end of things, or on expanding her knowledge base. And she listens to others who are in the same boat that she is, only she thinks they are experts, so she takes what they say and runs with it. Next thing you know, she is passing this information along, and now she is viewed as the expert by the next, upcoming Aunt Sue business. And so the misinformation grows and is seeded as fact.
Read, research, and ask questions. You may even find several companies that utilize organic materials, yet do not label that way (on the main panel). Aside from the limited space on small labels, it is sometimes easier to avoid all of the labeling legal issues. So look at everything and ask questions. Of course you could get such a great product from [many of the] Aunt Sue['s], that you won't care about the label. Just beware of the seller who screams all natural and organic, yet cannot tell you their definitions. For more information, check out these two posts.