How to Be Sure You’re Not Getting Scammed by ‘Organic’ Labels

January 28th, 2016

This week, Consumer Reports continued its crusade against the use of the term “natural” on food labels. The website and magazine has for several years correctly asserted that “natural” is one of the most misleading and meaningless food labels out there—and yet it’s used on product after product after product.

In a new survey of 1,005 shoppers, Consumer Reports found that two-thirds of shoppers believe “natural” means more than it does (note: the term is not even defined by the FDA) and almost half assume natural claims on labels are independently verified.

The meaningless “natural” label is one thing. But what about “organic”? Can we be sure that when products are labeled “organic,” it means they are almost completely pesticide-free?

Not always. Take companies whose name includes the word “organics” or “organics.” After the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group, exposed a number of companies who were skirting the qualifications for organic by putting the word in their products’ names, the United States Department of Agriculture attempted to clarify its stance on the matter in late 2014. Unfortunately for us, the USDA didn’t clear up much, saying that it would address potential violators on a “case-by-case basis”:

While we believe that the term, “organic,” in a brand name context does not inherently imply an organic production or handling claim and, thus, does not inherently constitute a false or misleading statement, we intend to monitor the use of the term in the context of the entire label. We will consult with the FTC and FDA regarding product and company names that may misrepresent the nature of the product and take action on a case-by-case basis.

Did you catch that? The USDA admits that the use of “organic” or “100 percent organic” on food labels on non-certified products may be misleading, but claims “organic” in a company name does not imply organic production or handling. As a shopper, is that how you see it? If most consumers believe “natural” implies a certain standard of production and handling, how much more is this true for a hyper-specific term like “organic?”

The best way to know for certain that a product is certified organic is the presence of the USDA’s organic label—the gold standard. Before a product can bear it, a government certifier personally inspects the facility, ensuring that no less than 95 percent of ingredients are organic and non-GMO, and that animal products contain no antibiotics or growth hormones.

As for everything else making grand claims or putting “organic” in the name? Verify, verify, verify.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

This article is related to: Educational, Food, News, Non-GMO, Organic, Tips

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Steve HoltSteve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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