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USDA announced new guidelines for the organic food label


I just wrote an article about organic foods, and then the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced new guidelines for organic food labeling. I do not claim causality, but it certainly is a correlation. Or maybe just a coincidence.

Anyway, one of the comments I kept seeing about my article was that the USDA didn’t regulate what is or is not organic food very well. Suddenly, not because I wrote about it, the USDA has decided to set new and transparent standards for what constitutes an organic food product.

I thought this would be of interest to those who are curious about organic food labeling and regulation, at least, concerning the USA. I believe that Europe has always had stricter requirements for the organic food label, so this may seem like a “catch-up” for the USA.

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What are the new organic food labeling regulations?

On 19 January 2023, the USDA announced new and stricter regulations for what is and what is not organic food. The USDA has strict guidelines for the “organic” label, which includes

  • soil quality
  • animal-raising practices
  • pest and weed control
  • use of additives

Apparently, there are loopholes a few kilometers wide that allowed producers to be quite flexible in what they consider to be organic foods. So the new regulations are meant to close some loopholes, making it clear what constitutes an organic food product.

Now, this does not change the science — it is not clear whether organic foods are actually healthier or safer for humans. I am not convinced at all and given the higher cost and lower productivity of organic farms, I’m even less convinced. But I digress.

Back to the loopholes. Here’s an example of how the organic labeling system in the USA was broken. In January 2023, the Justice Department announced indictments of individuals who created a multimillion-dollar scheme to export non-organic soybeans from Eastern Europe to be sold in the USA as “certified organic.” And this allowed them to charge a 50% higher price for the organic soybeans compared to regular everyday, conventional soybeans.

Also recently, two Minnesota farmers tried to sell more than $46 million in chemically treated crops while claiming they were organic between 2014 and 2021.

The new USDA guidelines are precise for the “organic” label:

The new rules also include certification of more of the businesses in the supply chain from farms to the grocery store. This includes brokers and traders that are in the organic food supply chain. It also increases the inspections of imported organic food.

Overall, what constitutes an organic food product hasn’t changed much, the new rules seem to make what is or is not organic more strict with additional enforcement, especially from non-US sources.

Again, my thoughts about organic farming remain the same. What’s the difference between synthetic and “natural” nitrogen fertilizers? They both do the same thing, and the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is just one thing, whereas the “natural” one may be contaminated with hundreds of other chemicals, some of them expressly against the rules of organic farming.

Moreover, the higher cost of production plus the higher price in the grocery store means one thing — it’s really for the wealthy. Those of us who can’t afford Whole Foods need to make do with conventional foods. I’m OK with that.

Michael Simpson
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