What Does an "Organic" Label Mean?


Once upon a time, buying an apple was easy. It didn’t require much thought beyond, “I’m hungry. I’d like to buy an apple. Here’s one! It looks good – no bumps or mushy brown spots.” Money was exchanged for the sweet, crunchy, nutritious prize, and we went about our day with full, grateful tummies.

Yet, thanks to generations of pesticides, bioengineering and synthetics, a food transaction today comes with significantly more food for thought, and carries with it the possibility for considerably more confusion as to what is “conventional” and what is “organic.”

When used correctly, nutrition labeling can help us determine which foods are healthy and okay to eat, but it has also grown in its scope to include labels that inform us as to how our foods are produced.

Prior to the early/mid-20th century, our nation’s crops came from seeds planted in the soil, tended to by farmers who rotated their fields each season. The ground was fertilized using waste from livestock who pulled machinery that tilled the earth, providing a fertile breeding ground for wholesome foods. This same livestock lived outside and provided not only labor, but also served as sources of nourishment for the families of the surrounding community. Their lives were meaningful beyond commercial consumption, and they were an integral part of the entire farm and food systems.

Such a means of food production was the conventional practice. However, during the 20th century, it gave way to the industrialization of agriculture, as the demand for cheap, easily accessible food skyrocketed. Pesticides made from synthesized chemicals became widespread and seeped into the once unadulterated soil. Cows that used to take years to reach full size were given growth hormones and antibiotics to artificially enhance the maturing process, enabling production and bottom lines to increase exponentially. A few farms prospered, while the old methods gave way to this new conventional definition of farming.

As time has passed, concerns have arisen from the questionable effects of prolonged exposure to these highly mechanized products that once were grown without the need of additional chemicals. Interest and demand for a return to the “old ways” has produced the “organic food movement” and with it, the need for government certification to have an “organic” label placed on a food product.

But what, exactly, does an “organic” label mean?

Basically, when a food product carries the USDA-approved “Certified Organic” label, it means that at least 95% of the ingredients are grown and processed the “old-fashioned” way – without the use of most conventional pesticides and fertilizers. Animal products with the organic stamp of approval come from livestock that were not given antibiotics or hormones intended for accelerated growth.

However, “organic” does not have to mean that no pesticides or synthetic ingredients/farming methods are used. While there are strict guidelines food producers must meet in order be certified organic by the USDA, there is an extensive list of federally-approved synthetic substances for use in organic crop and livestock production. To view this list, as well as the guidelines used to determine what is or is not allowable, please visit Code of Federal Regulations.

For those concerned with keeping your own and your children’s exposure to pesticides used in our food supply to a minimum, how can you be sure that what you buy is completely organic? You can look for the USDA-certified 100% Organic label-which means that ALL ingredients must be organic. Products that contain the label “made with organic ingredients” are only required to have 70% of its ingredients certified as organically-grown and processed.

In an ideal food world, we would not have to give a second thought to the safety of our grocery-store purchases. While striving for a pantry exclusively full of certified, 100% organic products is a noble goal, it’s important to ask if doing so is practical or even necessary.

Because of the relatively rapid 20th-century transition from locally-supported, old-fashioned farming – the “original organic” producers – to our current, mass-produced commercial agricultural model, the hard evidence needed to conclude that non-organic foods are indeed dangerous for long-term health is inconsistent. The science currently does not definitively support claims that organic foods are more nutritious or safer than their conventional counterparts.

Remember that locally-grown produce from small farms found at your neighborhood farmer’s market may follow organic-like practices, but are unable to pay for the organic certification. Feel free to ask them at your next visit. At Red Rabbit, we've developed relationships with local, family run farms, so we can ask our farmers exactly how they grow their foods. And for foods that simply cannot grow without pesticides or do not grow locally, we go with certified organic. 

For the freshest tastiest food, it is always best to shop in season. And if you can shop at a farmer's market, even better. You can go straight to the source with any questions.

Happy shopping!
The Red Rabbit Team

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