ERP Manufacturing Insights

How Is the Organic Food Industry Regulated

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Erp manufacturing organic food strawberries

Organic food is incredibly popular, and it’s making many businesses incredibly successful. The farmers and food manufacturers who have overcome the challenges of organic food production have found a lucrative market with seemingly bottomless demand.

But what, exactly, does that all-important USDA Organic” label mean? When a company enters the organic food market, what kind of regulatory forces can they expect to work with and what kind of benefits and trade-offs are involved in this production mode? This article will provide a brief overview of what’s involved in getting that coveted organic label, as well as some of the major pros and cons of organic farming. 

Usda organi label
USDA Organic food label, is it important?

The USDA Organic Label: What Does It Mean?

The USDA Organic” label is the cornerstone of the organic food market in America. A consumer who purchases food with this label can expect that it meets the following standards:

  • Produce must be grown on land that has not been treated with any chemical fertilizers or non-approved pesticides in at least 36 months.
  • Farms must rotate crops to help protect and enrich the soil they grow in.
  • Organic food products may not be produced using any kind of genetically modified organisms.
  • Meat and dairy animals must have the option to graze and go outside for certain periods of the year.
  • Animals can’t be given antibiotics or growth hormones, and they must be fed using organic feed. 
  • Certain sterilization processes, such as food irradiation, cannot be used in the food’s production.

The USDA has equivalency agreements with Canada, Japan and the European Union stating that their standards for organic food are similar enough that food considered organic in any of these countries meets the same standard in all of them. Other countries’ products listed as organic may not automatically meet USDA Organic standards, so it’s important to check.

Food products can also be listed as made with organic [listed ingredients],” meaning that at least 70 percent of their ingredients are certified organic, and that none are produced using prohibited substances or practices. Note, however, that specific ingredients must be listed. The phrase made with organic ingredients” is not sufficient. 

Who Certifies a Product as Organic?

Although the USDA creates and maintains the standards for organic foods, it doesn’t actually do the certification itself. That task falls to about 80 private and government organizations worldwide, themselves certified under the USDA’s National Organic Program, who inspect products and farms and verify that they meet USDA Organic standards. These inspections happen yearly and are noted for being fairly stringent. 

The USDA provides some guidelines on what food producers can expect when undergoing an inspection from one of these certification authorities:

  • Extensive auditing of documentation related to planting techniques and fertilizer/pesticide use. For this reason, it’s extremely important for manufacturers and producers to keep detailed records on these points. An ERP for food manufacturing system offers an effective and transparent way to preserve proper documentation.
  • Inspection of fields, farming areas, storage and production facilities to determine compliance with USDA Organic standards.
  • Testing of samples for pesticide residue to ensure that there has been no incidental contact with pesticides
  • An exit interview in which the request for certification is either approved or denied, and any questions are answered. 

Food manufacturers should note that inspectors are independent third parties who are not allowed to provide any advice on which specific strategies to use to meet regulations. They can explain the regulations in detail, but providing advice is outside their purview.

For those in the food and beverage manufacturing industry seeking to integrate organic products into their supply chains, many of these certifying organizations offer extensive lists of farms and producers that they’ve certified. These lists, such as the CCOF Directory, are a great place to start for companies interested in organic sourcing who aren’t ready to make the leap to full-blown organic. 

Usda organic farming

What Are the Benefits of Organic Food?

Organic food is, of course, extremely profitable and popular. But it does have real benefits to consumers, and to the environment, including:

  1. Food grown using organic methods has lower levels of detectable pesticides. A recent study found that an organic diet significantly reduced pesticide levels in children and adults. 
  2. Organic farming uses manure rather than chemical fertilizers, which have a notoriously high carbon footprint from their energy-intensive production process. Manure also decomposes slowly rather than releasing its nutrients all at once, reducing the nitrogen runoff that can harm watershed ecosystems.
  3. Crop rotation helps to protect soil by balancing its chemical composition. Planting the same field with the same crop year after year creates imbalances by depleting the soil of certain chemicals, while crop rotation keeps soil healthy and reduces the need for fertilizers by growing different crops each year. It can also help reduce the need for pesticides by naturally controlling populations of pests that feed on certain crops.
  4. Some studies have shown that organic growing methods support healthy biodiversity, although there’s not a scientific consensus yet. 

What Are the Drawbacks of Organic Farming?

Organic farming isn’t without its downsides. Questions of scale, environmental trade-offs and uncertain health benefits are all relevant for those choosing whether to enter the organic industry:

  1. Despite numerous studies, scientists have found few, if any, additional nutritional benefits from organic food when compared to conventional products.
  2. Because they use fewer pesticides and can’t use GMOs at all, organic farms have a notably lower yield than conventional farms. That means, according to some experts, that organic farms require 25 percent more land to grow the same amount of food.
  3. The crop yield challenges of organic farming mean that it may not be workable for feeding people at a global scale, since there’s simply not enough manure available to grow the amount of food required.
  4. The additional costs of producing organic food mean that some customers will necessarily be priced out of the market, raising questions about the equity of access to sustainably-produced food.
Organic seeds
Where it all starts, organic vegetable seeds.

The organic food movement has created a competitive and highly profitable industry. It’s a rigorous regulatory environment, with many of the pitfalls and challenges of any high-growth, high-standards industry, as well as some concerns about its ultimate scalability. But the field’s biggest innovators are working to address those every day, and those who choose to jump in can reap considerable rewards. 

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