Here at the Sustainable Lawyer, we want to make being green as easy and accessible as possible. That’s why we highlight the benefits of car services like Zipcar or spell out a few ways to make your Valentine’s Day a more sustainable one. This week, we wanted to help out our readers by starting a green glossary of sorts. Why? Well, there are plenty of awards, certifications and terms that are associated with sustainability, but what do they all mean? As a consumer (and all lawyers are consumers), which words or labels can you trust? TSL is here to help.
For our inaugural “green glossary” let’s start with a term that gets thrown around a lot these days – organic. In the last few years, it seems like everyone is getting on the organic bandwagon, but what does being organic really mean? Who determines what’s organic and what’s not? Why are some products called “organic” while others are “made with organic ingredients?” Let’s break it down.
Most people know that the basic definition of organic refers to not using synthetic materials (like pesticides and chemical fertilizers), genetically modified or chemical food additives in crop and livestock production. Not surprisingly, there is a lot more to it than that. Agricultural products that are sold, labeled, or represented as organic must be produced and processed in accordance with the USDA’s National Organic Program standards (except for operations whose gross income from organic sales totals $5,000 or less). As a consumer, checking for a USDA seal and investigating the display panel and informational panels on products will help you determine what is organic and what is not. Much of the distinction between organic ingredients is about the wording used to describe the product – as well as where it’s located on the packaging. USDA breaks down food that qualifies as organic into three main categories: “100% organic,” “organic” and “made with organic ingredients.”
- 100% Organic: Products described as 100% organic must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients and processing aids. These foods will have “100% Organic” listed on the main display panel.
- Organic: Organic products must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients. Any remaining product ingredients must consist of substances approved on the National List. What substances can be used? The USDA provides the example of using a vaccine to prevent pinkeye as an allowable synthetic substance. It makes sense – the use of the additive is to keep the animal healthy animal, but still disqualifies the meat as being labeled as 100% organic because it does use a synthetic material in production. For 100% Organic and Organic products, the USDA seal and seal or mark of involved certifying agents may appear on product packages and in advertisements.
- Made with Organic Ingredients: Products that are “made with organic ingredients” must be made up of at least 70% organic ingredients. These products can list up to three organic ingredients within the food product on the label. The USDA uses soup as an example here, where a label might list “soup made with organic vegetables” or “soup made with organic peas, carrots and corn.”
Processed products that contain less than 70% or organic ingredients are out of luck. They are prohibited from using the term organic anywhere on the “principal display panel.” They can, however, list organic ingredients on the information panel, so consumers can see if one type of lettuce in a mixed green salad was produced organically – and so on.
Thinking about labeling something organic that’s not? Don’t. The USDA has extremely strict standards and fines for violators. The USDA levies penalties of up to $11,000 on any person who “knowingly sells or labels a product as organic that is not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program’s regulations.”
But consumers beware, though the term organic is tightly controlled, no such regulation exists for the terms “free range,” “sustainably harvested” or “no drugs or growth hormones used” so don’t take it at face value.
Do you have a term, label or certification you would like TSL to tackle next? Sound off below.