February 9, 2023

US food officials are getting tough on manufacturers who claim their products are organic.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has tightened the definition of organic, which means that manufacturers will now have to meet much stricter criteria related to manufacturing and animal welfare in order to include the health claim on its label.

Officials said the old definition, originally applied in 2002, was being abused by companies taking advantage of consumers trying to be more health and environmentally conscious in what they ate.

It comes after the Biden administration proposed that all food and beverages sold in stores be color-coded or have a star-rating system that shows their nutritional information.

The rules in the updated guidelines go into play in March, and food companies have a year to make sure they comply.

The USDA has strict criteria that manufacturers must meet if they want to reap the benefits of having a “certified organic” label on their products.

Meat in which animals have not been allowed to graze on pasture or fed organic feed and forage, organically processed foods that contain artificial preservatives, colors or flavors, and foods that are grown or handled with genetically modified organisms are not are allowed.

The new USDA guidelines hope to close the loopholes that allowed ingredients that did not meet organic criteria to creep into the supply chain.

Federal standards require that products labeled organic be made without long-lasting and toxic pesticides, synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers, antibiotics and artificial hormones.

Processes such as genetic engineering, sewage sludge and exposure of products to radiation are also prohibited.

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As the organic food industry grew, food manufacturers skirted organic requirements by sourcing ingredients from abroad, where it’s harder to know if they meet US standards.

Now, food companies must ensure that more of their commercial supply chain meets the criteria, including their middlemen and traders.

The rules go into play in March and companies have a year to make sure they comply.

All organic imports must now come with a NOP Import Certificate, which guarantees that products meet USDA standards and was previously only required for imports from the EU and Japan.

Organic identification is also required on products that are sold business-to-business before they reach the consumer.

Organic operating certificates are also being standardized, and companies will have to submit more data about how their organic food is produced, and do so more frequently.

Companies were able to charge more for organic products. The higher price people are willing to pay for organic food was so lucrative that some producers deliberately tried to mislead customers.

Just this week, two Minnesota farmers were indicted for their alleged intent to pass off more than $46 million worth of chemically treated crops as organic between 2014 and 2021.