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

January 28, 2016
by Steve Holt for Thrive Market
How to Be Sure You're Not Getting Scammed by 'Organic' Labels

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

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

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  • renGek

    There was a line of Shampoos called Organics something or other and they got sued by CA for illegally using the word organic. So it changed to organix and recently became OGX. Not sure if this was country wide or just CA. I also noticed a lot of products on amazon claiming organic but they don't contain any usda certification or any other certification for that matter.

  • Helen

    The USDA certified organic label only certifies that a product has been certified to the USDA's definition of organic. The USDA does not otherwise own the word organic, and "organic" has other definitions (e.g. carbon-based) and interpretations. This article is a complete puff piece and gives the impression that its author is fresh out of high school, where he excelled in stretching an additional two pages of words out of one paragraph's worth of substance in order to meet minimum page requirements for English class essays. For the record, not all producers of organic products can afford organic certification; that doesn't make their products any less organic. Holt could have also mentioned that consumers could contact producers for information about their farming practices or their ingredient sources and manufacturing practices. Meanwhile, he completely neglects the holes in USDA organic certification while ignorantly proclaiming it the gold standard of organic. Either of these points could have been added to the article to make it more complete and add bulk without the need to go for the gold in the Olympic games of saying very little with as many words as possible, but unfortunately Thrive Market's blog writers sell sensationalism instead of substance (an especially irksome incongruence when it heavily markets itself as a business with pro-social values). Regardless of whether Thrive Market is genuine in its mission or not, its blog strongly gives the impression that it is just another snake oil-salesman hustling to cash in on the growing market of health-conscious consumers (ironically, no different from the unscrupulous villains Holt describes in this puff piece).