Can you trust ‘organic’ label? USDA wants to make sure

By Nihar Patel

“To call something organic, it really means something, especially in the state of California,” California farmer Steven Murray, Jr. says of the organic label. Photo by Shutterstock.

When you hear the word “organic” or see a product with that label, you probably think of food that’s healthy, “all natural,” and produced without chemicals. The word “organic” might mean all those things, but the product it’s attached to might be something else. 

The uncertainty around organic labeling, plus high-profile cases of “organic” fraud, have prompted the USDA to implement new rules to protect the integrity of the organic supply chain, and build consumer and industry trust. 

“It's really upping the bar in terms of enforcement,” believes Tom Chapman, CEO of the Organic Trade Association. “[The USDA is] requiring every entity in the supply chain to be certified … increasing the training and consistency amongst certifiers … adding additional controls at import. And it's really just boosting that trust that consumers can have in that organic seal.”

The latest efforts by the USDA are being welcomed by California farmers like Steve Murray, Junior, whose family owns Murray Family Farms in the Bakersfield area. Their farms, which grow more than 600 non-organic and organic crops, already comply with the state’s two-tier certification system. 

“There's a lot that goes into being certified organic,” Murray says, citing such measures as detailed record-keeping, map-sharing, soil-testing, plus a three-year period before official certification can happen. “We do up to 35 farmers markets a week, [and] we'll have someone come and … get samples of the different items … [to] do tests on them to see if there's any residues.”

Those kinds of measures distinguish the “organic” designation from other types of health-food marketing, says Chapman of the Organic Trade Association. Increased oversight from the USDA should only strengthen that further.

“When you look at labels like natural or regenerative or non-GMO, you don't have consequences, like jail time and fines that come … when you cheat and get caught. … That really sets organic apart from anything else.”

For farmers like Murray, the decision of whether to convert existing acres of farmland to organic crops has its pros and cons. Organic farming practices are more sustainable, there’s increased demand from consumers for organics, and potentially more profit to be made. But there are greater risks to organic crops when pest infestations or disasters occur. This is mainly due to the limitations around what can be sprayed to mitigate losses, which if utilized would jeopardize a farm’s “organic” status.

“It's more difficult, but I think that it's worth it. I think it's better for the earth. It's better for the public, and it makes better produce, and it's a system that we can do forever. And being sustainable, that's real important.”