Learn How to Tell When "Organic" on a Label Is True

Various fruit, veggies and meats on a table
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Products ranging from T-shirts to garden soil to soap often are marketed as "organic." The word (and process) has become so popular, cities abound even with organic dry cleaners. Such common usage makes it questionable when products truly are organic and how consumers can tell the difference.

In the United States, organic can be defined differently depending on the product. The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies whether or not food items are organic, but nonfood items are not as strictly regulated.

USDA Certification

Foods that meet USDA organic standards are "certified organic," also sometimes called "USDA-certified organic." Organic food in the United States can be identified when the following conditions are met:

The USDA's official organic seal is green and white, and some manufacturers and producers use a very similar, though different colored, seal. Such mislabeling can result in fines of up to $11,000 per violation. Also, a product does not have to contain 95 percent organic ingredients to be truly beneficial. The USDA allows those products with at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients to use the words "made with organic ingredients." However, those products cannot carry the green-and-white USDA seal.

Fruits and Vegetables

If you want to know if the fruits and vegetables you're purchasing are truly organic, look at the Price Look Up (PLU) sticker. If the produce is organic, the code will contain five-digits beginning with the number 9. Nonorganic counterparts will have four digits. For example, organically grown bananas will be 94011, compared to 4011 for those treated with chemicals and pesticides. A five-digit PLU beginning with the number 8 means the item is genetically modified.

Farmers Markets

Organics may cost less at farmers markets because of lower shipping costs and no middlemen, but it can be hard to know what you're getting—especially when products lack PLU stickers. Under the USDA's National Organic Program, farmers who market their products as organic are supposed to have their wares certified by a USDA-accredited agent or face fines if they get caught. If the product is being touted as certified, you can ask to see a copy of the organic certification paperwork. Vendors are supposed to have it on hand whenever selling their wares.

Uncertified Organics

When farmers use sustainable growing methods but choose not to get certified—or they are exempt from certification because they sell less than $5,000 worth of organic products annually—it doesn't mean their products aren't organically grown and produced.

For example, an organic blueberry farm may not be officially certified even though it truly grows organic blueberries. This is a tricky exception because it relies on consumer knowledge of sustainable growing methods. That said, due to the organic craze, those adhering to strict organic standards will likely let the public know how their produce was grown by stating the process on their website or other marketing materials. 

Nonfood Items

"Organic" is often used to describe various sustainable agricultural and food items, textiles, toys, furniture, mattresses, cosmetics, beverages, bath and body care products, and many other products. The term "organic" also is used descriptively for an action. For example, "I try to live organically" or "Organic farming is better for the planet." However, nonfood items do not fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA, and identifying what is truly organic can be more difficult.

The Federal Trade Commission polices false advertising claims, but consumers still need to know how to identify such false advertising in order to file a claim. Nonfood items cannot use the USDA organic seal, but there are third parties that offer certifications. For example, the Global Organic Textile Standard provides certification for products such as sheets and mattresses.

It's also common for some popular retailers to set their own standards for what they'll sell with an organic label. Whole Foods Market sets standards for things like bath care products that want to be labeled as organic. For example, personal care products must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients.