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Organic IQ – Deciphering Organic Food Labels

Posted Aug 26 2008 11:36pm

Somewhat surprisingly, Marketwatch, a financial website, did a consumer oriented piece on the $17 billion organic food industry today. Their take:

… some producers are less interested in good nutrition than in capitalizing on the American consumer's appetite for all things organic. In hopes of tapping into the growing organic market, some of these companies use misleading labels to lure customers.

Well yes, I might have suspected that when I saw big names like Del Monte, Kraft and Gerber getting into the game. Suddenly it seems my local supermarket has done away with their tiny “organics” section and incorporated a huge selection of products so labeled into every aisle, which makes shopping for organics a bit easier but no less bewildering

To the rescue, Consumer Reports with a quick concise guide on what to buy and what to avoid.


“100% Organic.” No synthetic ingredients are allowed by law. Also,
production processes must meet federal organic standards and must have been
independently verified by accredited inspectors.

“Organic.” At least 95 percent
of ingredients are organically produced. The remainder can be nonorganic or
synthetic ingredients. One exception: Organic labels on seafood are meaningless
because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has no standards to back them

“Made with Organic Ingredients.” At least 70 percent of ingredients are
organic. The remaining 30 percent must come from the USDA’s approved list.


“Free-range” or “free-roaming.” Stamped on eggs, chicken, and other meat,
this label suggests that an animal has spent a good portion of its life
outdoors. But U.S. government standards are weak. The rule for the label’s use
on poultry products, for example, is merely that outdoor access be made
available for “an undetermined period each day.” In other words, if a coop door
was open for just 5 minutes a day, regardless of whether the chickens went
outside, the animals’ meat and eggs could legally be labeled “free-range.”

“Natural” or “All Natural.” This label does not mean organic. The
reason is that no standard definition for this term exists except when it’s
applied to meat and poultry products, which the USDA defines as not containing
any artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic
ingredients. And the claim is not verified. The producer or manufacturer alone
decides whether to use it.

Embarrassingly, though I worked in the food industry, I’ve noticed I could stand to brush up on my own labeling knowledge. It seems I’ve been buying free range chicken imagining all those little birds running around the farmyard all day. Oops.

Related Posts at: Eating Crunchy

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