What Is Organic Food?

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Editorial Team | March 11, 2019 | 0

What Is Organic Food?

Recently, we discussed tips for taking your restaurant’s menu clean and green.  There are many ways you can approach ingredient sourcing and food preparation that fall into the “clean and green” category, but the most widespread (and therefore the easiest to source for your business) is “organic.”

But what, exactly, does organic mean?  You may be embarrassed to realize you’re not sure, but the truth is that many people are unclear on the difference between organic and conventionally-farmed food.  A recent poll found that only 20% of shoppers in the US could define “organic” correctly!

The good news is, that means people in the food and beverage industry can wow their customers by having even a little background knowledge on the subject.

What makes food “organic”?

It’s not just marketing.  The USDA has strict criteria that must be followed in order to claim “organic.”

To be certified as an organic producer, you have to abide by the following:

  • No synthetic fertilizer or “sewage sludge.” Organic farmers can replenish nutrients in the soil with natural fertilizers like livestock manure, compost, or green manure (plant waste left on the fields). They can also use crop rotation to maintain soil quality.
  • No (or few) synthetic pesticides. The soil where crops are grown has to be synthetic pesticide-free for at least 3 years. Farmers are allowed to use natural pesticides, and a few synthetic pesticides are allowed rarely and as a last resort. Alternative practices like mulching, crop rotation, and introduction of insect traps or predatory species are also helpful.
  • No irradiation. Irradiation is used in conventional farming to increase the shelf life of food and to eliminate disease or pests.
  • No genetic engineering. Organic farmers are not allowed to use plants and animals whose DNA has been modified in a lab.
  • No antibiotics or growth hormones for livestock. In conventional farming, hormones or antibiotics are added to livestock feed so that animals would grow faster and larger than they would on their own. This is not allowed in organic farming, and even animals treated with antibiotics for illness can’t be labeled “organic.”  Vaccination, however, is allowed.
  • Additional standards for livestock care. Livestock must have a diet that is also certified organic, “healthy living conditions,” and year-round access to the outdoors. For cattle, sheep, and goats, this includes pasture feeding for at least 30% of their diet during grazing season.

Once organic products make their way to market, the USDA also has rules on the language that can be used, based on how many ingredients are organically sourced.

  • 100% organic. All ingredients must be certified organic, except for salt and water. The label is allowed to have the USDA organic seal.
  • At least 95% of the ingredients are certified organic, and non-organic items come from a USDA-approved list of additional ingredients. These are also allowed to have the USDA organic seal.
  • Made with organic. At least 70% of ingredients are certified organic. The nutritional label has to specify which ingredients are organic. You can’t use the USDA organic seal on packaging.
  • Organic Ingredients. Less than 70% of the ingredients are certified organic. These foods may not be labeled as organic themselves, but the ingredients list can specify which ingredients are organic. The USDA organic seal is not allowed.

What’s the difference between “organic” and “natural,” “local,” etc?

There are so many popular labels for alternative farming practices, and it’s easy to confuse their meanings.  Since “organic” is the most popular category, people tend to assume it’s synonymous with many other things.

Here are some examples of other popular labels and how they differ from “organic.”

  • “Natural.” The FDA says that food can be labeled as “natural” as long as it doesn’t have added color, flavor, or synthetic ingredients. It also has to be “minimally processed,” but there’s no specific guidelines on what that means. All of these requirements are vague, so the “natural” label on food can be very misleading.
  • “Local.” This term has no legal definition in the U.S., so the question of how far the food has been shipped is a dodgy one. There are also no restrictions on the farming practices used. On the other hand, “organic” does not guarantee “local.”
  • “Sustainable.” Not all organic food is sustainable and not all sustainable food is organic, though there is considerable overlap. Organic farming practices originated from a similar philosophy, but as demand has risen, large industrial farms that are not sustainable have gotten involved.
  • “Grass fed,” “free range,” “hormone free,” “cage free.” Organic farming encourages or mandates many of these animal husbandry practices, but these labels, when used alone, do not mean that the animals were raised according to organic standards. For example, they guarantee nothing about antibiotic use. There are many different food labels targeted at animal welfare that range from very legitimate to very deceptive.

What are the benefits of organic?

According to scientific study, the jury’s out on whether eating organic has an individual health advantage.

Nutritionally, organic and conventional foods have similar amounts of vitamins and minerals, although it seems that organic dairy has a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids than conventional dairy.  In terms of food safety, we still don’t have enough data to know whether organic food’s restrictions on fertilizer, pesticides, and hormones make a difference in individual health.

On a larger scale, though, we can say there are definitely benefits to organic food:

  • Public health benefits. Overuse of antibiotics, in farming and in medical practice, have encouraged bacteria to become untreatable with life-saving drugs. Organic farming’s ban on widespread antibiotic use will help prevent future antibiotic resistance.
  • Environmental benefits. Environmental pollution with chemicals from synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides can wreak a lot of havoc on local ecosystems and contaminate groundwater. The natural alternatives used by organic farmers have a fraction of the impact.
  • Animal welfare benefits. Since organic standards were expanded to include animal welfare provisions, the livestock on organic farms are better off than your average conventional farm. There are still loopholes and the best way to guarantee animal welfare is to consider farm size rather than organic certification, but the organic label is now an at-a-glance guarantee of a higher standard of care.

Whether you choose to carry organic food or not, the most important step you can take to secure the health and safety of your customers is proper training in safe food handling for your staff.   Safety and regulatory compliance is crucial to your business, and we make it easy, fun, and affordable.

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