Here’s Why the USDA Updated its Organic Food Regulations

Here’s Why the USDA Updated its Organic Food Regulations

While many perceive organic foods to be healthier than their conventional counterparts, they may not command the inflated price tag.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently updated its organic food regulations to tighten guidelines around organic products. This update comes after a number of allegations claiming farmers have tried to sell non-organic or conventional food products with the lucrative white and green USDA “organic” label.

When is Food Considered Organic?

The USDA has stringent rules for what is considered organic. For example, every part of the supply chain is inspected, from seed sources and crop conditions, to pest and weed management and post-production handling. Farmers and handlers must document their processes and get inspected each year to earn an organic certification and be allowed to call their products organic.

Currently, there are “100 percent organic” or “organic” labels, which both require certification. However, products labeled “organic” may contain five percent non-certified organic materials. If the product says “made with organic,” only 70 percent of the ingredients must be organic. Products marked with “organic ingredients” do not require certification or a minimum amount of organic ingredients.

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While these safeguards and qualifications are in place domestically, there are varying rules in different countries that are prone to fraud and forgery. Oftentimes, when dealing with imports and exports of “organic” products, bills of sales and documents may be forged somewhere along the way, resulting in fraudulent labeling and mislead consumers. 

The new rule, which will come into effect on March 20th, is the biggest change to the USDA’s organic food regulations since they were first adopted in 1990. The new guidelines require the USDA’s National Organic Program certification for all imported organic food, increase the certifications of more businesses in the supply chain and boost authority for inspections, record-keeping, traceability and fraud prevention practices. Stakeholders, including farmers and producers, will have a year to comply with the changes. 

Are Organic Products Worth the Premium Price?

Organic farming may reduce pollution and support soil health, but are organic foods healthier? While organic diets may lead to less pesticide and antibiotic exposure, they have about the same nutritional value as conventional food products. “Just because a product says it’s organic or has organic ingredients doesn’t mean it’s a healthier choice,” the Mayo Clinic staff said. “Some organic products may still be high in sugar, salt, fat or calories.”

The term “organic” often gets grouped together with other wellness buzzwords such as “natural” or “gluten-free,” but none of these terms automatically translate to “healthier.” However, some consumers purchase organic products to avoid pesticides rather than for perceived health benefits. And while conventional produce may have pesticides, only small amounts of residue may remain in or on the foods, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Additionally, since organic food is not exposed to the same amount of preservatives as conventional food, organic food tends to be prone to bacteria attacks and have a shorter shelf life, which could lead to more food waste.

Whether consumers believe organic is better, either from a health or ecological standpoint, is up to them, but the demand for organic food doesn’t seem to be shrinking. According to a recent report from The Business Research Company, the global organic food market is projected to reach $294.54 billion in 2023 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.7 percent. 

The new organic food regulations will help reassure consumers that when a label says “organic,” the product is organic. But whether organic food products are worth the premium price will remain the consumer’s choice.