Stamp Of Approval: What The New USDA Organic Seal Means To You

When you buy organic foods, do you know what you're getting? Thanks to a new national standard, you can lay those worries to rest. As of October 2002, any food product making an organic claim must now meet stringent requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "Prior to this, every state and every organization had its own standard for what was organic," says Barbara Robinson, USDA deputy administrator in charge of the National Organic Program, "so the meaning of the word depended on who was using it at the time. Now there's a national standard that's applied across the board. Whether you're in California or New York, you'll know buying organic means the same thing."

In order to meet the USDA organic standard, farms as well as companies that handle or process organic food must be certified by a government-approved agency. Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products must be derived from animals that have not been given any antibiotics or growth hormones. Other organic foods, such as coffee, seeds, nuts, and produce, will be considered organic only if they have been grown without the use of most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Genetic engineering and ionizing radiation are no-no's, too.

These new labeling regulations do allow for various levels of organic, so it's up to the consumer to know what to look for. When you're shopping for single ingredients—grapes, for example—simply look for the official USDA Organic seal to know whether that product has met the government standard. If you're purchasing products with more than one ingredient, such as cereal or muffin mix, you have to understand the labeling hierarchy (see "Look to the Label," below). Remember: Use of the USDA seal is voluntary; a product may be organic even when it's not labeled so. But if you purchase any food item boasting an organic claim, you can assume it's up to par according to the USDA.

The USDA plans on strict enforcement of its organic regulations. Anyone caught selling or labeling food as organic that does not meet the standard will be fined up to $10,000 for each violation. For further information, or to download a copy of the regulations, log on to the official USDA Web site at www.usda.gov.

—Kelli Rosen