Updated: Aug 15, 2021
What a USDA Organic Certification Means
USDA certified organic refers to foods or products that have been produced according to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations. USDA-certified food handlers, processors, and retailers follow regulations that aim to ensure farming and food production increase sustainability, ecological balance, and biodiversity.
This means USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines that address soil quality, pest and weed control, and the use of additives, among other requirements. To this end, producers of certified organic products rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible. For example, when it comes to soil quality, products can be certified organic if they have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest (prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides). When it comes to multi-ingredient foods, USDA standards require additional considerations; regulations prohibit organically processed foods from containing artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.
In sum, consumers can be comfortable that USDA organic products are verified organic at all steps of the process between the farm and the store. Look for the USDA certified seal for indications the products are USDA approved.
The Benefits of USDA Certification
According to USDA regulations, organic farmers and ranchers must use practices that promote sustainability and minimize harm to the environment. In the long-term, organic production conserves wetlands, woodlands, wildlife, and improves the quality of soil and water. It also ensures the production of higher-quality, healthier products. Some of the environmental and soil quality benefits of organic farming include:
- Organic crop farming practices may include plant waste left on fields (green manure), livestock manure, or compost to improve soil quality and sustainability.
- Plant rotation is used to preserve soil quality and interrupt cycles of pests or disease.
- Sludge as fertilizer is not permitted, leading to better environmental results.
This all creates foods and products that are more environmentally sustainable to produce. The quality of organically produced food is also generally higher quality than that of conventionally produced food (see this academic study for more information). Organic foods have lower risk of food contamination with pesticides and concentrations of nitrate. This means in conventional and non-organic foods, pesticide residues can remain in the food even after they’re washed.
Ultimately, look for the USDA certified seal to ensure the food and products you bring into your home have the highest quality, safest ingredients produced in the most environmentally sustainable ways.