What does the "organic" label mean?

Does the term "organic" have a legal definition? Can “organic” foods include genetically modified ingredients or pesticides? (Spoiler, no they can’t. ☺️) Food law attorney, Lauren Handel, explains the nuts and bolts of the organic certification in American foods.

In this TOL Brief, Handel explains what makes organic foods, "organic."  She explores the difference between “Organic”, “100% Organic,” and "Made with Organic," and shares the inside story on who and how organics are certified.

 Lauren Handel is the principal attorney at Handel Food Law where she represents food, farming, and alcoholic beverage businesses.

Additional Resources
  • View the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List).  The National List provided incredible details on what is permitted or excluded at various steps of the process.  For example, the following ingredients are permitted as a soil amendments (enhancers) in organic crop production: squid byproducts, vitamins B1, C, and E, and soluble boron products.  The list also provides exceptions such as the following nonorganically produced agricultural products allowed as ingredients in processed products labeled as organic: carnauba wax, turmeric extract color, fructooligosaccharides, kelp (as a thickener), and de-oiled lecithin. 
  • The USDA Organic Seal. The “USDA Organic” seal placed in front of the package of the product must be overseen by an USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.  Products that are not certified, must not make any organic claim on the principal display panel or use the USDA organic seal anywhere on the package. For detailed guidelines, click here
  • For a 30-minute TalksOnLaw conversation on organics and other important food law questions with Lauren Handel, click here
  • For more information about Lauren, visit:  

What does the "organic" label mean? Brief Transcript

Lauren Handel: Who certifies organic products? Does organic mean that a product is entirely from organic ingredients?

Hello, and welcome to TalksOnLaw. My name is Lauren Handel, and I’m going to explain organic food labeling.

The term organic, as used on food products, is defined in USDA regulations—that's the U.S. Department of Agriculture—and the Organic Food Production Act and a set of standards by the National Organic Standard Board. Basically, it means that agriculture products were produced using methods that meet those standards and not using any prohibited or excluded methods. For example, synthetic pesticides, genetically modified or genetically engineered plants are not allowed in organic agriculture. When you're buying a processed product, you might see the label "organic," you might see the USDA organic seal. If you see it on the front of the package, it means that the product was certified organic. Who certifies organic products? Organizations that are accredited by USDA to be able to certify farmers and food processors, and without that certification, you are not allowed to use the term "organic" on the front of a food label.

Does organic mean that a product is entirely from organic ingredients? Well, actually, it doesn't necessarily mean that. If it says 100% organic, then yes, it means the product was produced entirely with organic ingredients. Otherwise, if you see a label that just says organic, it means the product contains at least 95% organic ingredients, and again, those need to be certified organic ingredients. And the other 5% have to be on USDA’s list in its regulation of allowable substances to be used in organic food products. Another label that you might see is “made with organic," and what that means is the product contains at least 70% organic ingredients, and obviously the specified ingredients have to be organic.

Again, my name is Lauren Handel, and thank you for watching TalksOnLaw.