Label Reform

2 minute read
David Bjerklie

Now that everything from carrots to ketchup bears some sort of “organic” label, what exactly does the designation mean? At the moment, not much–or at least not enough. But that’s going to change in October, when the USDA implements four new levels of certification. Consider the label on a can of beef-vegetable soup:

–“100% Organic” means that all ingredients meet or exceed USDA specifications, which ban the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and hormones. No artificial preservatives or other additives are allowed, except salt and water.

–“Organic” means at least 95% of the ingredients meet or exceed USDA specifications.

–“Made with Organic Ingredients” means at least 70% pass muster with the USDA.

–If the soup is less than 70% organic but contains, say, organic peas, it can still use the word organic to describe the peas, though only in the small type of the ingredient panel.

Organic suppliers can’t make special claims that their products are healthier or safer than conventionally grown food. Trace amounts of pesticides may well be found in organic foods because the chemicals are ubiquitous. And organic produce, just like standard produce, can be vulnerable to pathogens such as E. coli bacteria from manure or tainted water supplies.

The new rules will help clarify what “organic” means, but they’re no match for wily modern marketers. Consumers who read labels will still face head scratchers like “natural wholesome goodness.” –By David Bjerklie

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at