What Does It Mean When a Food Product Is Labeled ‘Organic’?

If you’ve wondered what makes food “organic,” and why you need to pay more for it, you’re not alone.

You may have a vague sense that organic food is healthier for you than conventional foods. You might also hope that the lower levels of pesticide and herbicide in organic food production means better health for Mother Earth.

But do you really know for sure?

And what about those higher price tags?

New Guidelines

For those of us who are willing to pay more for some certainty, there may be good news. On March 20, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will implement new guidelines to help us. Driven by a recognition that fraudulent “organic” food has been a widespread problem in the food industry for years, the guidelines are the single largest revision to the USDA’s organic agriculture regulations in 33 years.

The USDA has a strict definition of what “certified organic” means and only allows the use of that label by those who meet its standards. But according to the agency, the organic food market has grown increasingly complex. Supply chains are long, often global, and involve many businesses before products reach consumers. Some of the businesses in the supply chain fall outside USDA’s regulatory reach.

Meanwhile, consumers are increasingly turning their backs on processed food and have shown they are willing to pay premium prices for organic products even though they be uncertain of what it means. Sales of organic food products have doubled in the last 10 years and recorded an especially sharp increase in the last couple of years after the pandemic forced Americans to do more home cooking.


The USDA points to these two factors — the regulatory gaps and the allure of consumer demand — as the forces that are driving fraud. Law enforcers are taking notice:

In January, the U.S. Justice Department indicted two Dubai entities and several individuals for operating a multi-million-dollar scheme to export nonorganic soybeans to the U.S. as certified organic. The scheme allowed them to make 50% more than they should have with conventional soybeans.

In 2022, a certified organic Minnesota farmer, James Wolf, was indicted for conspiring to sell $46 million in chemically treated crops labeled as organic crops. Authorities then accused a second Minnesota farmer, Adam Clifford Olson, of conspiring with Wolf. He made his first court appearance on Jan. 26.

In 2021, a Florida man was sentenced to four years in prison for selling conventionally grown grain and seeds labeled as organic in South Dakota.

In 2019, Missouri grain broker Randy Constant received an 11-year sentence for selling more than $120 million of conventional grain falsely labeled as organic. Three Nebraska farmers also received prison sentences for their participation in the scheme, which involved selling the grain to buyers who used it mostly as feed for cattle and chickens to produce higher-priced “organic meat” and “organic eggs.”

New Goals and Targets

For a product to earn USDA’s certified organic label, it must be produced without toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering, and other restrictions.

As the legal prosecutions above point out, however, the USDA organic seal isn’t necessarily enough to ensure that products are organic.

The USDA says the new regulations will attempt to shore up the label’s credibility in several ways:

Requiring broader certification to include more businesses in organic supply chains.

Requiring organic certification of imports.

Increased inspections.

More stringent reporting requirements for certified operators.

What You Can Do

Those who like to eat healthily and buy organic hope that the new guidelines will provide stronger assurances that when we buy organically labeled food, we are getting precisely that.

For those who prefer organic food, it’s best to simply make sure that products bear the USDA organic label. But there will always be producers who make it sound like their products are organic when they are not. If you see a label that might seem fishy, the USDA maintains a lengthy list of fraudulent organic certificates from around the world.

If you suspect a company is committing organic food fraud, the USDA has an online reporting form you can fill out.

Here’s to happy and healthy dining!

Related Resources:

What Does the Natural, Organic, Local Really Mean Legally? (FindLaw’s Law and Daily Life)

Can Food Grown Without Soil Be ‘Organic’? (FindLaw’s Legally Weird)

Why Is My Non-Dairy Milk Called Almond or Oat ‘Beverage’ Now? (FindLaw’s Legally Weird)

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